UM Lowe Museum program trains healthcare professionals to view patients as works of art


School Programs Coordinator Hope Torrents discusses Sandy Skoglund’s installation “Breathing Glass” with students.

When Dr. Eugene Sayfie was stumped as to the sudden death of a diabetic patient, the white band across the top of the patient’s toenails was one indication that led to his conclusive diagnosis of arsenic poisoning and thus murder as the cause of his untimely demise.

The silent observation of body posture, demeanor, breathing patterns, and even toenail pigmentation may be part of a doctor’s patient evaluation. The University of Miami’s Fine Art of Healthcare Program at the Lowe Museum of Art allows health care professionals and students to study art as a tool to help make the right diagnosis and understand that in the quest for truth, ambiguity is often present.

Hope Torrents gets feedback from students touring the Lowe Museum

Cardiologist and former cardiovascular chair of the Miami Heart Institute, Dr. Sayfie, confesses he is not a great aficionado of the fine arts and often zooms around museums wondering what exactly visitors are looking at.

After experiencing the program firsthand he found it would be especially valuable as doctors attempt to diagnose illness in the fast moving time constrained pressures of the health care system. “This unique experience will hone the young doctor’s skill of observation,” said Sayfie, “and help them to not only look but to see beyond the obvious manifestation of an often occult medical illness.”

Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at UM, Dr. Sherrill H. Hayes, says students love the program as it gives them a chance to get out of their typical environment and meet other health professions students. “Standing before a piece of art is much like standing before a new patient,” said Hayes. “Enhancing the students’ visual observation skills to recognize both the subtle and obvious is a critical aspect of visual diagnosis.”

School Programs Coordinator at the Lowe, Hope Torrents, and Dr. Hayes were independently looking at similar programs that tap into visual thinking to develop diagnostic skills for medical professionals as far back as 2003. Since 2008 they have collaborated to develop The Fine Art of Healthcare workshops.

Museum tours are led by Torrents or Lowe Art Museum Docent volunteers. Health care students — who often think in black and white according to Hayes — are challenged to examine selected objects in the 18,000 piece inventory at the Lowe to discover what is happening in a painting or what the intention behind a particular installation might be.

“Most art works are ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations,” said Torrents. “There is not one right answer and medical students are not used to comprehending that. The whole premise of what we are trying to accomplish is how to use their eyes and ears and mouths for oral skills to get them to look longer and listen better.”

Three workshops, three hours each, are typically offered in the course of a semester. Suggested reading lists include a periodical by Lisa Sanders; “Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis.” Writing exercises, interviews of fellow students, and even role playing are all part of the process.

“We create activities,” said Torrents. “The students once did a role play with a painting. The doctor assumed the character of the painting and asked questions and did a case history interview. This is a time for them to come into a non-stressful safe forum for discussion and communication.”

To find out more about “The Fine Art of Healthcare” at the Lowe Museum of Art contact Hope Torrents at 305-284-8049, email or visit

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