Why Art is Important to Dentists: Dr. Neal Fleisher Explains

Dr. Neal Fleisher speaking at The Arts Factor 2014 launch
Dr. Neal Fleisher speaking at The Arts Factor 2014 launch

On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, Dr. Neal Fleisher, Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of General Dentistry and Director of Pre-doctoral Periodontology, gave a talk at the launch of The Arts Factor 2014 Report by ArtsBoston, a non-profit that champions art and culture in the Boston region. The Arts Factor 2014 Report features new research on the ways that the Boston area’s nonprofit arts and cultural sector transforms lives, builds stronger communities, and strengthens our local economy.

And what insight would an oral health care educator have to offer on the importance of the arts in and around Boston? Plenty, it turns out.

Dr. Fleisher, along with Drs. Carl McManama and Ana Zea, are responsible for initiating a program at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) that teaches dental students art appreciation skills as a means to improve patient care. As part of their required training, each first year DMD student visits the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where they examine and discuss works of art using a learning system called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Through VTS, students cultivate a willingness and ability to present their own ideas, while respecting and learning from the perspectives of their peers.

In his Arts Factor talk, Dr. Fleisher explained the importance of the VTS technique, “The value isn’t just in looking at things in a new and more detailed way, it’s also in overcoming our innate fear of talking about our findings when we don’t agree with others, in thinking we might be wrong about it.” He continued, “Students don’t like to get the wrong answers. And in the art we view, there are no right or wrong answers.”

Dr. Fleisher described to the audience why looking at art is such a great benefit to dental students. He explained that, when dental students begin their training, they are already bright individuals who are excellent at memorizing facts and acing multiple choice question exams. “But,” he said, “fewer of them are naturally gifted at looking at a patient or at a set of X-rays and figuring out what they are telling us about a patient—which is, of course, the critical component in the practice of medicine and dentistry.

“To properly diagnose our patients, dentists need to be able to explore all possible sources of the problem, to critically analyze all the symptoms and findings,” said Dr. Fleisher. “In many cases, we’ll involve colleagues in the process, we’ll communicate with each other, making critical observations and discussing them in a detailed and succinct manner. It’s not always easy to teach these skills in a traditional classroom and it seems that utilizing this VTS technique works very well at opening this door for our students.”

Alyssa Mazzoli DMD 16 explains how the program helped her as a student, “As we go through dental school, it is often easy for students to lose sight of the fact that there is a human being in your dental chair, and not just another root canal or amalgam.” She continued, “This person is attached to a brain, a heart, a voice. The Isabella Gardner museum trip was a great way to instill the important value of observation. We looked at a few paintings and sculptures and tried to interpret the facial expressions and body language of the subjects and attach them to a feeling. This is certainly a valuable trait to develop not only as a future healthcare provider, but also as a productive member of society.”

Dr. Fleisher first became interested about the potential benefits of art appreciation for dental students three years ago, when he read about a program at Yale Medical School that brought medical students to the University’s museums. He presented the idea to Dean Jeffrey W. Hutter—a leader who encourages and supports innovative and creative approaches to education—who supported implementing a similar program at GSDM. Dr. Fleisher then found a receptive partner in the Gardner Museum. Michelle Grohe, the Museum’s Director of School and Teacher Programs, has been instrumental in making the partnership with GSDM a success.

While similar programs exist at other schools, GSDM is the first dental school to integrate the art appreciation experience as a requirement for all first year DMD students.

Dean Hutter said, “I am grateful to Dr. Fleisher for sparking the inception of this innovative learning experience at the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine.” He continued, “I am proud that our School has taken the lead in recognizing the importance of visual thinking and analysis by including it in the required coursework for our DMD students.”

Watch all the talks from The Arts Factor 2014 Report launch.