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Mass. doctors get lesson in art to improve patient care

An innovative program in Boston shows medicine is an art as much as a science. It teaches physicians in training to use their eyes and ears to connect with patients and enhance the practice of medicine, reports CBS medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula.

At the Brigham and Women's Hospital, doctors, nurses and Harvard medical students are helping reshape medical education. By day, members of the integrated teaching unit, or ITU, focus on treating patients. But at night, they fix their sights on works of art.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, art becomes a catalyst to strengthen clinical and interpersonal skills, softening the hard science of medicine with creative expression.

"To me, this represented the struggle of being a third-year med student where I'm on a different rotation every couple of months and I feel like my story is being rewritten over and over and everything I learned, some of it I forget," one student said.

Dr. Joel Katz designed the art curriculum at Brigham and Women's, which has become a model for other hospitals.

"When you survey patients, very few of them complain about the knowledge base of their doctor or the fact that their doctor doesn't know anatomy," Katz said. "What they complain about is that their doctor is inefficient or ineffective in communicating. That's what patients feel and that's what we're trying to address with these programs."

Katz chose the art museum because it "allows everybody to focus on an external object in a way that I would say takes the personal aspects out and lets them solve problems together."

Activities are carefully designed to enhance team-building, and to break down the hospital hierarchy, junior staff members are paired with more senior colleagues. Observing and describing art is used to promote problem solving, communication, thinking outside the box and appreciating other perspectives.

The museum experience is incorporated into medical practice on hospital rounds, with the goal of improving patient care. Instead of deciding the care plan in the hallway, rounds are conducted collaboratively at the bedside, with the patient included.

In the museum our goal was to interpret a piece of artwork together, here our goal is to interpret a patient case together. And it's really about figuring out the answer to the patient, for the patient," said Thomas Gilliland, an intern at the hospital.

Getting everyone on the same page with a consistent message avoids the fragmented care many patients experience in the hospital.

"Whether you're the nurse, nursing assistant, physician, physical therapist, care coordinator, we're all there equally to serve the patient regardless of your role," said Casey Burnett, a registered nurse. "I think the museum experience helps bring us all together for them to realize that we're all in the same team and I think it really translates into patient care."

Patients also benefit from the experience of having doctors at the bedside.

"The fact that they get together and they talk to me about what's going on they don't just treat me like "Oh, he doesn't know," one patient said.

With this program, Dr. Joel Katz hopes to find some of the human interaction that has been lost in medicine.

In fact, as recently as 50 years ago, humanities were at the core of medical practice. While research into this program's effects is still ongoing, there is strong anecdotal evidence that both patients and practitioners benefit.

Several doctors "CBS This Morning" interviewed said that interacting with art helps them process the stress of their jobs.