Veterinary Faculty Teaching Science of Radiology through Art

There may be nothing more important to a veterinary radiologist than developing visual skills in order to make determinations about a medical issue an animal may have.

To teach veterinary students how to hone their visual skills, Rachel Moon, DVM, an assistant clinical professor of radiology in the Department of Clinical Sciences in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, partnered with the university’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art to bring art and science into focus.

Students volunteered recently to spend a Saturday morning at the museum, examining works of art on display. They were asked to spend time observing selected pieces of art, objectively describe the visual details they saw in each and use these details to interpret the artwork.

Once students practiced visual exam skills, they, along with  Moon and Scott Bishop, curator of academic and public programs at the museum, went into a classroom to discuss their findings and their interpretations.

At the end of the session, students applied that newly developed skill set to examine radiographs and other diagnostic images, applying what they could see, the objective visual details, to interpret the images.

“Interpretation is based on our actual experience,” Moon said. “There can be a lot of different interpretations based on a central theme.

“This is a pilot program for the college, but one that other medical training programs have adopted and one I felt was applicable to the clinical education of our student veterinarians,” Moon said. “For instance, Yale and Harvard medical schools have used the same theory of utilizing art to teach observational skills resulting in improved physical examination techniques and even empathy.”

“Radiology,” Moon said, “is an integrated process between the art and the science of discovery. The answer [to a medical problem] is not always apparent, so it is important that students can first describe what they are seeing before jumping to possible answers.

“Radiology is not something you can teach facts for students to memorize. They have to have the ability to carefully observe, see and then interpret and analyze.”

Veterinary students can sometimes find radiology courses stressful, because students have to employ critical examination skills. But radiology is not alone. “These skills can be used broadly in a number of physical diagnosis situations for veterinarians, including dermatology and ophthalmology,” she said.

“Everything we ask our students to do requires keen observation skills. What I’m trying to teach students is the difference between observation and interpretation and that one must precede the other.”

Moon said the partnership with the museum has been perfect, “because art has no bias, it’s new to the students and it’s non-threatening.

“In a classroom setting, students are relying on typical biases, but in a museum, they must rely on their skills of observation to make interpretations.

“When veterinary students are in the clinical setting, there is a lot at stake, and they can feel the pressure. Will they get the diagnosis right, will the client accept the diagnosis?” Moon said.

“Here, we can teach them important skills they can take back to the clinical setting but do so in a way that is not intimidating and threatening. It builds confidence in students.”

Bishop agrees. “People might think that museums are not for them, that the activity of looking at art is an elite one. As an academic museum, we are committed to making art accessible to everyone. We especially want our students to be empowered to look at art, understand it, and feel its relevance in their lives.

“It’s easy to look at a painting and say, ‘the girl is wearing a green dress’ but then they must also examine her face and say ‘is she worried?’” Bishop said. “Distinguishing that is the difference between observation and interpretation.

“It is how we convey in words what the artist is trying to convey in paint.”

Moon said when the students begin looking at works of art, they will count people and buildings and animals, and describe them in detail. As the sessions progress, the students make conclusions based on what they see. “Their observations and interpretations of the paintings, once they examine them, is exactly the same process that they need to go through when they look at a radiograph.

“They need to use the descriptions to get to a conclusion especially when the answer is not always apparent,” she said. “They have to describe what they see and then interpret it.”

Fourth-year student Matt Miller, one of several students who volunteered his time, said the project interested him because it is a skill that is important to the profession. “It has helped me examine details, to not overlook small details which could be important and to not have preconceived notions.”

Freelie Mitchell, also a fourth-year student, agreed. “The sessions have helped me better examine art and radiology and it will be something that will help me in my clinical education and in the profession.”

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The College of Veterinary Medicine is the South’s original and nation’s seventh oldest veterinary medical program, celebrating 126 years. We prepare individuals for careers of excellence in veterinary medicine, including private and public practice, industrial medicine, academics, and research. The college provides programs of instruction, research, outreach, and service that are in the best interests of the citizens of the state of Alabama, the region, the nation, and the world.