Nursing students learn art of communication at the VMFA

Zoë Dehmer
Staff Writer

Through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an unlikely connection has been formed between the artistic and medical fields.

VCU Nursing students met last Thursday with students from VCU’s Graduate School of Art Education at the VMFA to collaborate through an action research initiative called The Art of Nursing.

Three times each semester, about 60 undergraduate nursing students take two hours out of their full-day clinical class, Technologies of Nursing Practice, to view and discuss art at the VMFA. Technologies of Nursing Practice is the first class nursing students take that allows them to actively work with patients in the hospital.

“Today each of our facilitators, which are all graduate students in the art education program, will be taking their groups on a tour through the museum that (the facilitator) has designed themselves,” said Jesse White, one of the art education facilitators.

Nursing students have joined forces with graduate art education students to work on communicating with each other, and by extension, their patients. Photo by Zoe Dehmer
Nursing students have joined forces with graduate art education students to work on communicating with each other, and by extension, their patients. Photo by Zoe Dehmer

White said that one member of the nursing faculty pairs up with each facilitator at the beginning of the semester and is present in the smaller groups at each museum experience. The job of the nursing faculty member is to connect the discussions at the museum back to nursing and health care.

“One thing we try to make really clear is that our goal is not to give them lots of art historical information. It’s more to hone their assessment, observation and critical thinking skills,” White said. “We use the artwork as a tool to do that and as a sort of springboard for discussion that hopefully does that.”

One of the activities last Thursday focused on communication. Part of being an effective nurse means being able to quickly and accurately assess a situation, communicate clearly with others and to be aware of a patient’s relationship with their environment, White said.

To begin, nursing students broke into groups of three or four people. One was designated as the “drawer” and those remaining were “describers.” While the drawers waited nearby, the describers were assigned one painting to study.

After a few minutes, the drawers walked into the exhibit with their eyes covered. While facing away from their group’s painting, they then had to draw the image based on the descriptions given by their group members.

The goal of the activity was to consider the process of communication, such as which elements were included in the description, what was the hierarchy of information and what words were used to specify the painting as accurately as possible.

While this may not seem like an activity with much connection to the clinical world, nurses have to communicate with patients, family members and other healthcare professionals about the status of patients. These skills take time to develop and are not exclusively exercised in the hospital.

At the VMFA, students can learn to analyze and discuss a work of art with their peers just like they would a patient in the hospital, but in a low-stress environment where the consequences of their decisions are not nearly as great.

“It helps them to deal with those feelings in a safe environment,” said Jeanne Walter, a nursing professor. “They’re thinking about how they think. They can do so and take risks, and there will be no repercussions.”

Walter also explained that these exercises encourage the nursing students to use the experience of their coworkers and to work together to solve problems.

“They don’t have to make the decisions about the piece of art all by themselves. They can work with others. And they should,” Walter said. “That’s the best way to advocate for a patient — to get as much information as possible. Nurses in the acute care setting are preoccupied with doing and that’s part of this whole thing. We want them to think about what they’re doing.”

Carley Lovell, one of the Nursing School faculty members at the VMFA, said that she is impressed at how quickly the nursing students independently make connections between the experiences they have at the museum and their own practice as aspiring nurses.

“It blows you away just listening to different people’s perspectives and the different inferences they make to nursing,” Lovell said.

After each session at the VMFA, the nursing students are given a short prompt to reflect about their experience. The art education students then take that information and use it to develop a conceptual model of how the collaboration works.

“We’ve known for a while, based on research done by other universities, that this works. But what we don’t know is how it works,” Walter said. “We think it’s an iterative model, so people keep learning as they go through the process.”

White said the observation is built around group discussion and the sharing of ideas is commonly used when describing this kind of action research.

In their research, they talked about objective vs. subjective information and what makes something fact, White said. In connection to nursing, they discussed the circumstance of receiving information from another health care providers about a patient before interacting with the client and what potential kinds of biases are created.

“It’s interesting because there’s a lot of similarities between (art and nursing) but there are a lot of ambiguous answers in artwork and not so ambiguous answers in nursing,” White said. “So we talk about that tension a lot too.”

Liz Letchworth, a nursing student participating in the Art of Nursing program, believes that working with art education graduate students is mutually rewarding.

“Even though they’re graduate students in art education, they’re still able to help us relate things to nursing,” Letchworth said. “I think some of our own ideas about nursing help open their eyes. We open each others’ eyes.”

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