Visual Literacy: A New Prerequisite for Health Sciences Education?

Can formal training in art and visual thinking strategies help to improve:

  •  Visual diagnostic skills of medical students?
  • Clinical observation skills of primary care physicians and nurses?
  • Communication among members of inter-professional health teams?

The answer is yes, according to these research examples1,2,3 and other studies which sought to enhance clinical practice by improving the visual literacy skills of students and health professionals.

Visual literacy is a two-sided concept, involving the abilities to both decode (make meaning from visual messages), and to encode (compose meaningful visuals).4 It entails “a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials.”5 Some examples include evaluating the factual accuracy of an image; determining cultural, ethical, political, and historical significance; comprehending graphs and charts; evaluating aesthetics and design principles; and understanding copyright, all concurrent with developing technical proficiencies to create or choose images appropriate for a given need.

The fading notion of the ‘digital-native’ student arriving on campus already equipped with these abilities has caused educators and librarians to recognize an emerging need for visual literacy skills instruction, support, and curriculum integration. Just as visually-oriented technologies (e.g., mobile devices, Web, video) are creating a culture shift away from text, some educators are calling for a similar move away from the predominantly text-based methods of instruction. As a result, curricula infused with visual literacy components are appearing in schools of medicine and nursing, as well as courses in molecular and cellular biosciences, and biology.

Librarians have also responded to this need by developing the Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, published by the Association of College and Research Libraries in October 2011. These new Standards recognize “[T]he importance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Yet the pervasiveness of images and visual media does not necessarily mean that individuals are able to critically view, use, and produce visual content. Individuals must develop these essential skills in order to engage capably in a visually-oriented society.” Librarians and educators can use the Standards to “articulate observable learning outcomes that can be taught and assessed, supporting efforts to develop measurable improvements in student visual literacy.”6

  1. Naghshineh S, Hafler JP, Miller AR, Blanco MA, et al. “Formal Art Observation Training Improves Medical Students’ Visual Diagnostic Skills,” Journal of General Internal Medicine 23, no. 7 (2008 Jul):991-7.
  2. Kirklin D, Duncan J, McBride S, et al. “Cluster Design Controlled Trial of Arts-Based Observational Skills Training in Primary Care,” Medical Education, 41, no. 4 (2007 Apr): 395-401.
  3. Klugman CM, Peel J, Beckmann-Mendez D. “Art Rounds: Teaching Interprofessional Students Visual Thinking Strategies at One School,” Academic Medicine 86, no. 10 (2011 Oct):1266-71.
  4. Metros SE. “The Educator’s Role in Preparing Visually Literate Learners,” Theory into Practice 47, no. 2 (2008):102-9.
  5. ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: American Library Association. 1997–2012. Oct 2011 [cited 2012 Jan 12]. Available from:
  6. Ibid.

~ Rebecca Abromitis