Vital Visionaries Program: ‘Serious Fun’ that Improves Medical Students Attitudes towards Older People
Creating art with older "teammates" made first-year medical
students more sensitive to older people, according to results of
the Vital Visionaries Collaboration (VV), a pilot program developed
by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in conjunction with the
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the American Visionary Art
Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, MD.
"Medical students who participated in this program had a more
positive attitude towards older people and the older participants
had a chance to explore their creative sides. It's wonderful when
serious learning can be achieved amid a great deal of laughter and
good will," said Judith A. Salerno, M.D., M.S., NIA Deputy
Director. "Too often medical students only interact with ill
and frail older people. The first step towards improving care for
older people is to improve how medical students view them."
Launched in March 2004 as a pilot project, the VV program paired
15 first-year medical students from Johns Hopkins with 15 older
people from the Baltimore area. The two-person teams met and learned
from older visionary artists, took a contour drawing class, and
worked on various art projects at AVAM in conjunction with its year-long
exhibition, "Golden Blessings of Old Age/Out of the Mouths
of Babes." Visionary art is produced by self-taught individuals,
usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate
personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself,
according to AVAM (www.avam.org).
Compared to non-participating students, the VV medical students
showed a statistically significant improvement in their attitudes
towards aging and older people in most areas tested by the Aging
Semantic Differential scale. After participating in the 4-part art
program, 11 of the 15 participating students said they would like
to have greater numbers of older patients in their future practices
compared to only 2 non-participating medical students. All of the
Vital Visionary medical students disagreed with the statements that
working with older patients would be less interesting than working
with younger patients and that older people are difficult to talk
However, among the non-participating medical students, only 60%
disagreed with the statement that older patients would be less interesting
to work with and 80% disagreed that older patients are difficult
to talk to. The number of VV students who were interested in obtaining
specialized training in geriatrics doubled in comparison to their
interest prior to the program. While still a pilot program, the
results were encouraging, Salerno said. The NIA plans to make information
available to others interested in starting a similar program.
"We have been looking for ways to improve the way medical
students are educated about the world around them and to better
connect with people who are coming to them for help. The Vital Visionaries
has been a great way to forge those connections," said Jean
Ogborn, M.D., who coordinates the JHM's Physician in Society
class. "We hope to keep the Vital Visionaries going in some
The numbers of physicians who specialize in medical problems associated
with aging are declining just as the need for their services is
increasing, according to a 2004 study contracted by the Association
of Directors of Geriatric Academic Programs. Currently, there are
about 7,500 geriatricians in the U.S. The group estimates 36,000
geriatricians will be needed by 2030 to treat the growing numbers
of older people.
"Can anyone imagine the good that would come from museums across
the country celebrating the creativity and vibrancy of their community's
oldest citizens? By enlightening a new generation of physicians
with first-hand knowledge that 'old' can mean the best, the wisest,
and the most fun that one can be, our Vital Visionaries experience
surpassed all our expectations and made great use of the museum
as an agent of positive change," said Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM
founder and director.
The Vital Visionaries program was based on a study conducted by
Dr. Marie A. Bernard and investigators at the University of Oklahoma's
Reynolds Department of Geriatric Medicine. Their study, published
in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (March
2003), observed that "healthcare professionals tend to believe
that most older individuals are frail and dependent and that those
who are not are atypical" despite data showing that most elders
are in good health and live in the community.
For a copy of the final report, please contact Jeannine Mjoseth
at 301/451-8409 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NIA leads the Federal effort supporting and conducting research
on aging and the health and well-being of older people www.nia.nih.gov.
NIA is part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD,
within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.