Art of Observation Workshop

There is art to observe, and then there is the art of observation. Recently, 51 Salus Physician Assistant Studies (PA) students stepped outside of their busy classroom and into the Philadelphia Museum of Art to participate in the first of a series of workshops known as the Art of Observation.

The workshops, designed by the Museum’s educators, Adam Rizzo and Suzannah Niepold, help students improve upon their technical skills in observation, listening, interpretation, communication and empathy with the intent of applying the same skills to the clinical practice of medicine.

The sessions have been structured around the Artful Thinking approach, developed by Project Zero at Harvard University, and focuses on six thinking dispositions: Observing and Describing, Questioning and Investigating, Reasoning, Comparing and Connecting, Exploring Viewpoints and Finding Complexity. Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania approached the museum in 2014 to develop an optional course for their first-year medical students as a means of developing and refining their observation, communication, and evidential reasoning skills.

The workshops are centered around three specific themes: Observing and Describing, Interpreting, and Empathy, Perspective and Recognizing Bias. The first exercise engages the students in an observation and visual breakdown of a specific painting – without knowing the title, artist, and general subject beforehand. Rizzo and Niepold guide the discussion as they divide the painting into quadrants. The students then try to describe the painting using only visual descriptors without providing interpretation or subjective input.

For the second activity, students are partnered and seated back to back. As one faced a painting, the other faced away with a paper and pencil in hand ready to draw what their partner described. This exercise was a test of observation, detailed communication, and listening, and to see if the student’s rendering bared a resemblance to the artwork they were supposed to recreate based on their partner’s observations.

A debriefing follows the activity, which helps students place what they had just learned into theory within the context of a clinical setting.

art of observation

Overall, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as they recognize the value in the development of such skills foundational to providing quality patient care. By implementing this workshop into the PA curriculum, Salus has taken another important step to stay at the forefront of healthcare education.

For student feedback about the workshop, please see below.

Cody Blattner '24PA

Did the first workshop meet or exceed your expectations?
The workshop definitely exceeded expectations — I loved the idea when I heard about it during my interview and it didn't disappoint. I attended in the middle of a busy week and it really helped me ground myself.

What did you like best about it?
My favorite part was when we partnered up and had to describe a painting to someone who couldn't see it, so that they could attempt to draw it based off our instructions. It was a great team builder and a lot of fun.

Do you look forward to the additional workshops?
I do look forward to the additional workshops! Art of Observation made me confident in the program's ability to provide us with fun and valuable experiences.

What did you learn?
I learned how much you can find out if you take the time to really look and listen.

Have you been able to put into action what you learned during the first workshop?
I try to keep in mind the idea that it is okay to slow down and take time to appreciate what's around me, and that it makes me a more conscientious person and, someday, a more conscientious practitioner.

Would you recommend it to other students?
I can't recommend this workshop enough!

Julia Drozdowsky '24PA

Did the workshop meet or exceed your expectations?
The Art of Observation workshop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art surpassed my
expectations. It was well organized, insightful, and presented a different perspective on
approaching clinical medicine.

What did you like best about it?
My favorite segment of the workshop was towards the end. We partnered up with
another student, and while one student sat facing away from a painting with a pad of
paper and a pencil, the other student sat facing the painting, attempting to describe the
painting as effectively as possible to the person facing away while they sketched what
they interpreted from the description. This quickly brought to light how each person
interprets messages differently, an especially valuable lesson in clinical practice.

Do you look forward to the additional workshops?
I am definitely looking forward to additional workshops. As we continue to dive deeper
into our knowledge of medicine and have additional clinical experiences, I know the next
workshop we have will only be more applicable.

What did you learn?
The workshop allowed us to realize the perceptions we can make of people and
situations from a quick first impression. By only allowing us to state facts and not
interpretations of the paintings we analyzed, it became apparent how easy it was for us
to slip into subjective observations. Additionally, I learned that often time it takes
multiple attempts to communicate a message clearly as not everyone thinks the same

Have you been able to put into action what you learned during the first workshop?
I have not yet been able to clinically put into action what we learned at the first
workshop, but it has been something I have thought about while listening to patient
experiences in the classroom.

Would you recommend it to other students?
I would without a doubt recommend the experience to other students. Not only did it
provide a change of pace from the usual structure of our classes, but it gave us a
different and valuable perspective of how we may interact with and educate patients.

Catherine Oakley '24PA

Did the first workshop meet or exceed your expectations?
The workshop exceeded my expectations. I really enjoyed it.

What did you like best about it?
I liked the activity in which we had to draw a painting based on the description that our partner gave us. I thought this activity highlighted the importance of being very detailed and specific when writing H&P’s for a patients chart and also asking good questions to get a better understanding of what’s going on with a patient.

Do you look forward to the additional workshops?
Yes, I do look forward to additional workshops.

What did you learn?
I learned how important it is to take time to listen to a patient to allow them to speak and to ask good questions in order to get a better picture of what’s going on with the patient. Additionally, I learned that it is also extremely important to be detailed when documenting the patient’s information so that other providers can have a good understanding of what happened during the visit as well.

Have you been able to put into action what you learned during the first workshop?
Yes, I have been able to practice this as I was writing my H&P assignment after we visited Jeanne’s Hospital to see a patient. For this assignment I was more detailed in describing the picture that the patient painted for me and overall I thought that this workshop really helped me understand the importance of this.

Would you recommend it to other students?
Yes, I would recommend it to other students.