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Art for medicine’s sake

Aoife Connors interviews Prof Daniel Duffy, the University of Limerick Graduate-Entry Medical School’s new artist-in-residence, on what art can teach our future doctors.

Accomplished fine artist Prof Daniel Duffy was recently appointed the first Fellow in the Humanities at the Graduate-Entry Medical School, University of Limerick

Most would be curious to find out what skills and abilities doctors and artists might share. It is certainly something that could well pop into one’s head on learning that the University of Limerick Graduate-Entry Medical School (GEMS) has recently employed an artist-in-residence.

“It’s an experiment in getting medical students to a place where they can relax and enjoy observing complex works of art without the pressures of life or death,” artist-in-residence Prof Daniel Duffy explained to Irish Medical Times. “It’s about utilising the arts to stretch the students’ instincts, more so than just studying data and the critical information needed in the sciences.”

Prof Paul Finucane, Head of the UL GEMS, spearheaded the idea to introduce an art module for third-year medical students as a means of developing their awareness of the humanities, combining the human and science elements of illnesses.

Prof Duffy explained that artists were either born with, or develop through their discipline, a high level of sensitivity to their visual instinct.  “As patients of these future doctors, tapping into this visual instinct will enhance their observation skills.”

The Irish-American artist said that the statistics show that once you move through a programme like the art module at UL, the student’s observational and diagnostic skills with patients seem to improve by between 9-10 per cent.

The UL artist-in-residence programme was established by the university following support from Lundbeck. The module begins with each group “sitting in front of some very complex works of art”. Prof Duffy explained: “I’ll provide them with the visual language which includes: line, contour, light and shadow, the theory of light, and recognising patterns or certain textures when it comes to defining something. I’ve felt since I was a child that doctors either don’t have the time, or the comfort level, to intimately observe their patients… typically, more often than not, doctors rely on data and deal with specific things when a patient comes in, only because they have a small amount of time.

“They become increasingly more comfortable exercising that instinct of observation, so that’s really the goal in the long run. But I think it also provides a little bit of a break from what is expected from them during the semester.”

Now in its eighth week, Prof Duffy meets the students once a week for two-and-a-half hours. The third-year students are unavailable for the month of December but will return for five or six more sessions in January and February. A number of first- and second-year students have also participated in the programme. The artist-in-residency will conclude on February 14, 2012.

The programme was developed from similar schemes in American and Canadian universities. “As an artist, what I have done with the programme is to share with the class a lot of the work that I’m currently doing on ageing and geriatrics.” He said this tied in with the programme because it required “intense observation of detail”.

Irish identity
Born in the US to an Irish father who emigrated as a teenager, Prof Duffy, along with his five siblings, grew up in New Jersey. He started coming to Ireland at 10 years of age and by the time he was 15, he was coming over for summers on his own. Now with his father’s family and his own here in Ireland, he said he was “enraptured”. “I just can’t get enough of this place. I would identify myself as more Irish than American. It is clearly the inspiration for all of my work and if it wasn’t for Ireland, I don’t believe I’d be a painter.”

In 2008 and 2009, Prof Duffy was commissioned to compose a number of paintings for the HSE based on some working-class neighbourhoods in the Liberties. He is now primarily a commissioned portrait painter for academic institutions, federal government and legal circles in the United States.
He also works with medical schools in Texas, New England and California. Prof Duffy has had public collections at the US District Court, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Delaware and New York University.

Student work
The results to date with the module have been described as very impressive by Prof Duffy. “The idea of carefully observing something, and then taking it one step further, where you have to describe what it is you’re seeing as meticulously as possible in a short period of time, means there is a lot of anxiety in the class, in getting people to work past this idea of thinking when it comes to drawing and using your observation skills.”

He said that the students in Limerick had adapted very quickly to the use of materials and the surfaces on which they were working. “I got them moving fairly rapidly and, as a result, there’s work there that I would say would be gallery worthy, because the level of detail has been mind blowing, quite frankly.

The Gynaecologist by Brendan Lawless, generously donated to the University of Limerick’s Medical Art Collection by Lundbeck Ireland

“I’m very impressed to see that medical students within a few classes are working from the point of simply educating the eye. This has proven to me that anyone can learn to draw if you are provided with the right framework and information, and your control is taken away from you.

“What happens as we get older is that we become more controlling and the fear takes over when it comes to drawing. But everybody in the UL class can draw as good as my first-year art school students.”

The people behind the UL GEMS are clearly thinking outside the traditional box, with such ideas as a poet-in-residence or an writer-in-residence perhaps becoming a reality. “Whatever languages the teachers feel could be of benefit in making the doctors a little more human on certain levels and unburdening them in some way, then hopefully those instincts will be developed,” said Prof Duffy.

Negating any criticism that may be directed at the notion of introducing arts into a medical programme, he explained: “I think there’s absolutely nothing about these programmes that is in any way distracting or detrimental. All of this, whatever form of the arts, just creates another layer of insight and I think there are certain things about the medical profession that don’t really invite experiment when it comes to preparing these medical students for a future as doctors.”

He added there was a lot of pressure on the medical institutions to produce effective practitioners. There was also a certain cynicism in the community that medical students were doing something philosophical that has nothing to do with the physical science of medicine. “But I would argue the point to my last breath that these professions that exist in our world today are few and far between. The idea that they would not be utilising the sensitivities that we’ve all been born with — observation, hearing, touch and being able to explore and expand that skillset, or that natural ability that most of us have — I think that would be to the detriment of those of us that will be their patients.”

The artist believes it is something that medical schools worldwide will continue to explore and provide to medical students. “I hope they do more with music and dance and other things, but these would just be small components in a very dense curriculum.”

At the moment, the UL med students are “working from the figure” and Prof Duffy said he was “so impressed” with the results. “A couple of the portraits they did last week were just as good as what you’d see from somebody working professionally as an artist.”

So far from art for art’s sake, the programme has painted a clear picture of art for medicine’s sake, too.



  1. Dear Aoife,

    Well done on a really well written article, one that says much about the IMT, the University of Limerick and the greater institution or industry of established medicine in Ireland. If change for the better in our health service is every going to occur upon any sustainable basis, then the seeds of that change have been sown in limerick where medical students are ‘doing something philosophical’.

    Karl Marx once dismissed philosophy by famously stating that philosophers simply “think about how society works, whilst what is important is to the change the way society works.” This criticism was undermined by the German Philosopher Martin Heidigger, when he reminded us that “we can never change how society works unless we first change the way people think about society…. and for this to occur we need philosophy”.

    Well done to enlightened folk in Limerick and to yourself for bringing this to light.


  2. Brilliant ARTicle, I firmly believe that all art in all their modalities are a medicine, using art, creative writing, poetry, performance, music, sound, dance and movement all help the healing process.

    I have seen many amazing paintings coming from people who have never picked up a brush before, just amazing to watch. x

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