Vital visionaries program 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 (JHM) and the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, MD.

"These medical students who participated in the 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 the AVAM website (

Compared to non-participating students, the VV medical students showed a statistically significant improvement in their attitudes towards aging and older people as measured by the Aging Semantic Differential scale. After participating in the 4-part art program, almost 3/4 of participating medical students said they would like to see older patients in their future practices compared to only 13% of medical students who did not participate in the program. Overall, the VV medical students reported more positive feelings after the art program than before it started. Participating students said they found older people interesting and easy to talk to, and felt more comfortable around them than did the non-participants. The number of VV students who were interested in obtaining specialized training in geriatrics doubled compared to interest they expressed prior to participating in the program. While only a pilot program, the results were encouraging, Salerno said.

"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," says Jean Ogborn, M.D., who coordinates the JHM's Physician in Society class. "We hope to keep the Vital Visionaries going in some fashion." 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 NIA plans to make information available to others interested in starting a similar program.

* 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.

The NIA leads the Federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. NIA is part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (

The Vital Visionaries report will be available at a press briefing July 15 at 10 a.m. at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Remarks will be made by Judy A. Salerno, M.D., M.S., Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging, Rebecca Hoffberger, Founder/Director of the American Visionary Art Museum, and Jean Ogborn, M.D., professor, The Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and Vital Visionary Participants.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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