Dr. Florence Gelo is seen leading the Art of Observation Program at Woodmere Art Museum. (Photos by Carole Verona)

Dr. Florence Gelo is seen leading the Art of Observation Program at Woodmere Art Museum. (Photos by Carole Verona)

by Carole Verona

On a recent Friday afternoon, two attending physicians, six medical residents and a faculty member from Chestnut Hill Hospital Family Practice took time from their busy schedules to spend an afternoon at Woodmere Art Museum to study the paintings of three local artists. The goal of the program, “The Art of Observation,” is to help medical professionals sharpen their acute observational skills. By looking at artwork, they cultivate a special kind of “seeing,” which ultimately will lead to a more empathetic patient encounter.

Dr. Florence Gelo, of Wyndmoor, initiated and conducted the three-hour session, based on a program pioneered in the late 1990s by Dr. Irwin Braverman of the Yale School of Medicine and Linda Friedlaender of the Yale Center for British Art.

Dr. Gelo, who declined to state her age, is on the behavioral science faculty at the Drexel University School of Medicine, where she has worked for 27 years. She has also been a docent at Woodmere for three years. She previously presented this program at Drexel and Penn, but this is the first time she has brought it to Chestnut Hill.

When introducing the program to the doctors, Dr. Gelo stressed, “The art is beautiful, but the fact is we are using it as a vehicle to accentuate your ability to see. You’re not here for art appreciation or for a tour.”

She then took them to the galleries, where the doctors sat quietly for 10 minutes in front of each of three paintings, observing and writing down what they saw. “That alone is radical,” said Dr. Gelo, “the idea that a doctor is going to sit, not talk to anyone else, observe, continue to observe and then go back and observe again. This is what’s important here, the ability to be with something for that amount of time.”

The doctors were still. They paid attention. They looked at each painting. Then they looked again and again. They wrote down everything they saw, and at the end of the 10 minutes, they shared their lists with the rest of the group.

Dr. Gelo probed the doctors by asking, “What is going on in this painting? What makes you say that? Does everybody else see that? Or do they see something else? Are you describing what you saw, or is it your interpretation of what you saw?”

As the doctors began to share and discuss information, they became more of a team. Dr. Gelo noticed that they were more relaxed in the environment and more open to initiating discussions about the differences they saw in the paintings. “They were not only talking to me; they were talking to each other. They learned how to become an interactive group without me as a facilitator.

“Hopefully, they’re listening to each other. They’re debating the evidence that they find. They’re enhancing their ability to describe. When they come to conclusions, they’re going back to challenge those conclusions. They begin to distinguish between what they actually see and how they interpret what they see.”

How does this relate to patient care and to a doctor’s ability to make a diagnosis? Dr. Gelo explained, “What I’m teaching is that maybe it does take that amount of time to look at something and see it more conclusively.” She believes that physicians, like most people, often look but don’t see. “The whole point to having them look and see more is to influence the way they diagnose.

“In order to make a correct diagnosis, they have to direct their attention to a number of things over and over again. They have to find evidence for what they’re thinking about and not just shoot from the hip. Every time they look, they’ll be able to see more. If they haven’t gone back one, two, three, four times, they would be stuck in their first round of observation. We’re all prone to that.”

Hildy Tow, Woodmere’s curator of education, said that The Art of Observation program supports the museum’s goals of reaching out to different groups in the community and, in general, to helping people become better observers. “We’re rushing around in this world, multitasking. Sometimes I feel like my job is to make people slow down and pay attention. In fact, when children come in to the museum I ask them, ‘Did you bring your eyes today? Do you know that your eyes make you smart?’”

Dr. Gelo grow up in Brooklyn, New York and Babylon, Long Island. Currently an associate professor in the Department of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at Drexel, she specializes in issues surrounding death and dying, palliative care and the intersection of religion/spirituality and medicine. She is also a pastoral psychotherapist in private practice specializing in grief and loss and chronic illness.

Dr. Gelo received a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1995 and a master of divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School in 1985. Dr. Gelo is also a Unitarian Universalist minister and is not affiliated with a particular church but still preaches and participates in church ministry.

More information at Florence.Gelo@DrexelMed.edu or 215-740-7882.