A medical-school class that takes place in an art museum? That’s MED 556, “Visual Thinking and Medical Diagnosis.” In this 10-week elective course, supported by the Friends of the UW School of Medicine, medical students hone their clinical observation skills by looking at — and thinking about — works of art.

“It’s not based in art history or the name of the artist or the period,” says Tamara Moats, an art history teacher at the Bush School’s upper school. “I choose works that offer a lot of detail to discuss…so that we can really spend a lot of time with the work and use it as a doctor would look at a patient.”

A decade ago, when Moats first approached UW associate professor and dermatologist Andrea Kalus, M.D., with the idea, only a handful of medical schools were teaching the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) method. Today, says Moats, around 70 universities offer similar programming.

First, students are introduced to VTS in three local museums — primarily the Henry Art Gallery, a class sponsor — using a range of original objects. They describe what they see in detail, citing visual evidence in the artwork. They record their observations in journals. Then they apply their new skills to medical slides.

“What we see greatly influences the care that we give,” says graduate Alison B. Herson, M.D. ’13. “I use VTS for everything from looking at a skin lesion to reviewing pathology and even interpreting a patient’s emotions…I believe it’s made me a more critical observer and a better care provider.”

There’s proof to back up Herson’s assessment. In a Harvard study published in 2008, VTS-trained students made an average of five more observations on a visual skills examination compared to a control group — a 38-percent increase. Kalus suspects it also enhances important “soft” skills.

“We’re asking them to connect with emotional content, which develops emotional intelligence, resilience and empathy,” says Kalus. “Although that wasn’t our purpose at the beginning, I now recognize it as a valuable tool that the class offers students.”