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Art History Professor Uses Impressionism to Teach Med Students about Communication

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Charles Yoo

What does Impressionist painting have to do with the practice of medicine?

More than you might think, according to Nancy Locke, associate professor of art history. For the past two years, she has been a presenter in the course “Impressionism and the Art of Communication,” a humanities course offered to fourth-year medical students enrolled at the University Park Regional Campus of the Penn State College of Medicine.

“The idea is to improve doctor-patient communications through activities structured around Impressionist paintings,” Locke explained. “The goal is to show medical students different ways to communicate with their patients.”

Dr. Michael Flanagan, assistant dean for curriculum and student affairs at the College of Medicine’s University Park location, developed the course, Humanities 7970, because of his own interest in painting and communication. Medical students at Penn State are required to take a humanities class during their fourth year. This course was offered for the first time in January 2016.

One class activity involves students painting a copy of a work not by looking at it, but by asking a partner short, close-ended questions about the painting. During the four-week course, the students paint original works that will be exhibited on January 26, during their final class session. A public exhibition of the paintings will take place in the Borland Project Space in April 2017.

“In my lectures, I discussed the idea of structure versus freedom. For example, what were audience expectations in the 19th century? Why was Impressionism controversial?” said Locke. “Art can make people see their lives differently. This course wants to help medical students think about communication as more nuanced, and to help them see that doctors should be open to discussions with their patients and not just jump to conclusions.”

According to Locke, it’s important for doctors to engage with the humanities. “Doctors will see people regularly with certain problems. But a painting can continue to be challenging, and there are always new questions to ask. This class opens up a different way of thinking—it opens a door.” 

Image: Charles Yoo based his impressionist art assignment on a photograph he carried on his phone. Yoo was part of a group of Penn State Medical School students who participated in Humanities 7970: Impressionism and the Art of Communication in January 2016. Photo by Patrick Mansell.