More than a diagnosis

Health professions students adopt visual thinking strategies to be more mindful with patients

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Examining a painting and discussing with classmates what they see is a typical day in the life of students majoring in the visual arts. It was new territory, however, for students majoring in health professions who enrolled in a new course at Grand Valley, “Learning to See: Visual Training for the Health Professional.”

Developed by Jill Eggers, associate professor of visual and media arts, the course teaches students majoring in health professions how to become better diagnosticians and more empathetic communicators through visual learning using art.

This is accomplished through various visual thinking strategies — activities designed to develop students’ background knowledge on a subject through the use of critical thinking skills that focus on detail to enhance understanding.

Throughout the inaugural offering of the course during the fall 2018 semester, students participated in guided meditations, examining works of art, drawing exercises, art gallery tours and in-depth group discussions.

Students and teacher gathered around a painting
Alexa Miller stands next to a painting, ‘Floating Bed,’ in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences and asks nursing, health professions and art students to discuss what they see.

As a general education art course (ART 380 for students hoping to register), Eggers said students of any major, not just those majoring in nursing or health professions, can benefit from the lessons taught through visual thinking.

“Having students from different disciplines is a real asset to the course,” said Eggers. “It creates a dynamic that’s in play, not just by bringing art and medicine together, but by the way people who are talking and practicing together in the studio communicate and think differently, while also learning from each other.”


While conceptualizing the course, Eggers was directed to a similar visual thinking course offered at Harvard Medical School, “Training the Eye.”

“There has been research done on these types of courses that show students who take them have decreased diagnostic errors later in their careers,” said Eggers. “Misdiagnosis is a huge problem in the health care system, so this seemed like a lovely way to bring together the arts and medicine in a method that shows it’s effective at teaching people to be better diagnosticians.”

Cynthia McCurren, dean of the Kirkhof College of Nursing, said visual thinking is a critical skill for students entering the health professions because the strategies place a heavy emphasis on developing person-centered care.

“Confidence in and reliance on basic physical observations has been replaced by unnecessary and expensive tests, and a consequent distancing between the patient and the health care provider,” said McCurren. “Visual thinking techniques can improve observing, interpreting, analyzing, collaborating and the ability to slow down and notice details.”

Visual thinking through studying art can also help students improve their communication skills, which McCurren said are necessary when providing diagnostic reasoning as well as improving team work.


Eggers consulted with Alexa Miller, who co-developed and has taught the Harvard Medical School course for 10 years, to bring the “Learning to See” course to Grand Valley.

Eggers received a teaching innovation grant from the Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center once the course was established to bring Miller to campus in October for a community presentation and two workshops with students.

“Learning to See” students also engaged throughout the semester with other pieces of art in Grand Valley’s permanent collection, which consists of more than 15,000 works.

Eggers stresses to her students that the exercises in examining art and articulating thoughts are just as much about practicing active listening as they are about verbalizing ideas.

“One of my key takeaways from this class is the importance of compassion and empathy toward patients.”

Alexandra Troia, senior majoring in allied health sciences

“How do you listen to somebody rather than sit there looking at them thinking about what you’re going to say? Students learn to talk about what they see in non-judgmental ways, going beyond initial biases toward one kind of art or another to talk about their experiences,” said Eggers.

Kristine Vander Velde, a senior majoring in studio arts, said the art analysis sessions helped open up her mind to new ways of processing ideas as an artist.

“I have had a few experiences where I initially tuned into certain parts of a piece of art, but couldn’t figure out why, so I moved on to a more obvious place of interest,” she said. “During the discussions with other students and listening to how they responded, the pieces of art made more sense to me.”

Alexandra Troia, a senior majoring in allied health sciences, recalled really starting to connect the dots between the worlds of art and medicine while responding to artwork with her classmates during a class excursion to the Grand Rapids Art Museum during ArtPrize 2018.

“One of my key takeaways from this class is the importance of compassion and empathy toward patients,” said Troia. “While there is so much emphasis for health care professionals to be essentially disconnected in order to avoid feeling difficult emotions, there is value in experiencing these emotions and I believe they improve patient care.”


When speaking with students and faculty members about possible activities for the course, Eggers repeatedly heard from pre-med students that they are expected to draw for anatomy and physiology courses.

Eggers said having basic drawing skills enables future health professionals to become more visual thinkers, but also adds another form of communication when working with patients.

Students used some of the more than 300 specimens housed in Grand Valley’s Plastination Lab (the only lab of its kind in Michigan) as subjects for their drawing assignments. Plastination is the process of infusing animal, human or plant tissues with a variety of plastic or silicone products to permanently preserve specimens for educational and instructional purposes.

Tim Strickler, professor of anatomy, is the director of the lab. He said he was happy to offer specimens to Eggers’ students because he believes in the power of seeing the big picture of an idea through drawings before attempting to understand individual concepts.

“I learned from several teaching mentors that simple drawings can often convey organizational details that students miss when they just study notes and tables,” said Strickler. “Drawings and pictures are easier to remember than endless lists of details.”


A large portion of comprehending visual thinking strategies through the course required students to “navigate uncertainty.”

“This means not coming to conclusions or judgments immediately, but learning to really observe and increase the depth and breadth of our awareness and observation,” said Eggers. “Much of medical training places emphasis on having answers, but the best clinicians tell us that we need to be comfortable with uncertainty in order to be effective diagnosticians.”

There was plenty of uncertainty throughout the semester because many of the students with more technical minds found challenges in their assignments since

“Learning to See” is structured as an art course. Troia said that her biggest challenge was adjusting to a different teaching style.

“As a science major, I am not accustomed to the subjective nature of the Visual and Media Arts Department,” said Troia. “I am a very Type-A, left-brained individual and I struggle with open-ended assignments, so this course really put me outside of my comfort zone and forced me to be creative.”

Eggers said the meditation portion of the course helped teach students how to relax and focus so they could process their assignments and future careers.

“The medical profession is crying for these skills because, while we’re wonderful in the U.S. at teaching the science and application of western medical care, bedside manner is something that we’re continually hearing is missing and degrading.”