The Art of Improving Clinician Observation Skills

Medical science and art come together for Zucker School of Medicine students and faculty.

In the Hofstra University Museum’s Emily Lowe Gallery, medical students and physicians from the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell huddle closely together to study works of art on view in Converging Voices: Gender and Identity. This exhibition features works that confront multiple issues of identity including gender, ethnicity, class and sexuality.  Participants share their thoughts and observations about what they see.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” explained Hofstra University Museum director, Nancy Richner, MA. “It’s about your interpretation and the evidence that supports your thinking.”

As part of the humanities in medicine curriculum at the Zucker School of Medicine that focuses on enhancing doctor-patient communication, fourth-year medical students can enroll in “The Narrative Perspective and Reflective Writing: An Elective in Medical Humanities,” a longitudinal course designed to help students develop their capacities for continuous reflection and improvement. The course creates a community of practice with peers and faculty who value the humanities and reflective practice. The first session was held at the Hofstra University Museum where students engaged in various strategies of looking at and discussing works of art. These strategies help build behaviors and skills used in both making medical diagnoses and in searching for a work of art’s meaning.

“Medical practice involves interpreting complex and ambiguous details, the same way one would interpret a piece of art,” said Alice Fornari, EdD, RD, associate dean for educational skills development at Zucker School of Medicine, who collaborated with Richner to develop a program focused on careful and conscious observation. “In this program, art is used as a way to talk about what we see, to build a case, and to help clinicians work on their evidence building skills and descriptive language.”

Added Richner: “We provide the content, environment, and an approach where students can exercise skills in working as a team, in observing and interpreting, and where they can gain insight into their own practice.”

During the class session, students, along with physician-faculty who help teach in the elective, collectively examine and discuss carefully selected works of art on view. Using the artwork as a starting point, program participants connect with each other and look beyond a patient’s symptoms to see the whole person, discussing the challenges of diagnosing and treating patients. They also participate in a roundtable discussion reflecting on the process they have engaged in while in the gallery.

“What I'm learning is that it's important to give time to what you see and try to understand,” said fourth-year medical student, Kristoffer Strauss, as he provided feedback on an individual work of art. “My interpretation of an image may be different from another person, but that difference forces me to take another look and reevaluate something perhaps I had missed or not considered.  The same can be applied to our interaction and examination of patients and why it is so important to be open-minded in our approach to care.”

Various activities also prompted conversation about the challenges of coping with the demanding lifestyle of a healthcare practitioner and the need to build resiliency. While the art and medicine elective is helping physicians-in-training prepare for clinical practice, medical professionals are readapting the program as “art immersion therapy” for residents and fellows to help decrease burnout, promote mindfulness, and alleviate the daily demands of healthcare practice.

“Art can serve not only as a way to improve communication and treatment of patients,” said Dr. Fornari, “the creative process can also help us to reconnect, reenergize, and reinvigorate ourselves as professionals in the care of others.”

For more information about medical humanities and the art and medicine programming at the Zucker School of Medicine, contact Alice Fornari at [email protected] or Nancy Richner at [email protected].

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About the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell
Established in 2008, the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell was founded by two equal partners: Hofstra University and Northwell Health. The School of Medicine is built upon the strong clinical and graduate medical education programs of Northwell, as well as the robust research and academic programs of both Hofstra and Northwell’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Currently, the Zucker School of Medicine ranks among top medical schools nationwide for primary care (2018 U.S. News & World Report’s Best Graduate Schools). The institution comprises more than 2,500 faculty members across 25 academic departments, and enrolls a diverse community of approximately 400 students. For more information, visit

Adrienne M. Stoller
Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell
[email protected]