To be or not to be: An artist in medicine


“Why would an artist want to go to medical school?”

It was a good question, and one of my favorite questions asked of me during my medical school interviews. I am what one might define as an artist, and yes, I really wanted to go to medical school. I was a photographer, musician, composer, and actor. I loved the arts and they were part of my everyday life. From performing on stage to directing fashion photo shoots, I embraced my creative spirit.

However, I never saw my imaginative curiosity dwell within the arts alone. I also considered myself a scientist. The complex interactions of proteins and compounds to produce changes in the human body were fascinating — thus it only made sense for me to attain degrees in both visual art and biochemistry. So there I was, in the middle of my medical school interview, being asked why an artist would want to go to medical school. To me, the answer is quite simple: Medicine is an art.

Throughout history there has been a rooted ideology that the arts and sciences were one in the same. Scientists were artists and inventors – there were no preconceived boundaries of what was possible in either world and in many respects, there was a blending of the two paradigms. The great minds in history have long spoken about the importance of the arts within science, with Albert Einstein famously stating, “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

Medicine is no exception. As clinicians, we are asked to do what at times seems impossible. We have a very limited amount of time with a patient to diagnose and develop a treatment plan for an ailment. We must effectively communicate complex ideas among colleagues and patients, all while showing empathy and ultimately doing what is best for the patient. Medicine is a field in which we are always learning and challenging what we really understand.

Art students are trained to develop critical thinking and observational skills that are needed to extrapolate information from the physical and emotional realms around us. We are to take these observations and create and communicate an idea that has never been synthesized before. Artists often reinvent themselves through their artwork and are trained to observe the world with extreme detail — from color to line, and light to shadow. These practiced qualities can be translated directly into the everyday lives of a physician. To be a good physician, most would agree that you must be a critical thinker, keen observer, and be able to connect and communicate with your patients. The better the communicator, the better the physician.

Having an art background makes sense within medicine. In fact, studies have shown that formal fine art training with medical students improve their diagnostic skills. Many medical schools around the country are incorporating these artistic workshops into their curriculum and are learning the importance of the arts in medical education.

The art of medicine is beyond a learned algorithm, it is a human connection with a patient. Although I agree about the importance of evidence based medicine, there are many times we must look more in depth than simply putting a checkmark by predetermined questions for a history and physical. It is very easy to get into the monotonous habit of rattling off a number of impersonal questions to get the diagnosis with completely missing what might be the actual cause of the illness.

It is no wonder that many diagnoses go undetected, as we do not have time in many cases to actually connect with, and listen to our patients. There are also many times when we reach the limits of what modern medicine can provide. In these instances, when no medicines benefit, we must remember that the human connection we have with our patient is powerful and is the foundation to the art of medicine.

I believe that everyone is an artist, although some have not yet uncovered their talents. Physicians and other health care providers must remember that not every patient fits into a simple box and we must continue to be like an artist — to challenge what we know, observe and critically think about what we see, and communicate effectively with those around us. As now a third year medical student, I am glad that I am an artist who entered the field of medicine. Throughout my rotations I have seen so many instances where the lines of art and science blend together.

I challenge those in health care to see open their eyes and realize that we all can be considered artists in medicine. Dr. William Osler said it best when he stated, “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling which your heart will be exercised equally with your head. Often the best part of your work will have nothing to do with potions and powders, but with the exercise of an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked, of the wise upon the foolish. There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation.”

Michael Metzner is a medical student.

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