Bringing True Art to Medicine

Doctors shouldn’t forget to tap their inner artist with each patient encounter- it does help!  Everyone knows that medicine is an art as well as a science:  that speaks to the unexplained diagnostic insights, or sudden hunches based on gestalt, that we hope will supplement the objective data, as well as the individual tailoring of approaches to treatment.  But what about traditional arts, in the form of painting, sculpture, music and literature?

The most recent issue of the alumni magazine Yale Medicine addresses this aspect of the medical school, including the Program for Humanities in Medicine (begun in 1983, alas, two years after I graduated), the med school symphony and theater group, writing programs for students and medicine residents, literary salons, and visual arts at Yale.  The richness that humanities bring to the lives of med students enriches, in turn, those doctors’ encounters with their future patients.  That is, if they don’t forget to tap their inner artist, when faced with busy schedules and sometimes difficult personalities.

In Fourth World of 2196, Benn Marr fights a feeling of being irrelevant, as he prepares for medical school.  Here’s an excerpt:

The medical field essentially consisted of tailoring and applying these peptides in clinical situations.  Diagnostics had long ago been relegated to machines, which scanned, analyzed, and diagnosed the patient.  They even prescribed the appropriate therapeutic plan.  Frankly, the production of theragenomic peptides could also easily have been taken over by- and, in fact, seemed particularly suited to- the medical computers.  What remained were the sensitive tasks- acknowledged haltingly by the most advanced teaching hospitals- of deciphering patients’ wishes and guiding them through the pitfalls of treatment.

“Wishes” meant the patients’ attitudes toward both disease and treatment, resulting from a global summation of their personalities, prejudices, neuroses, education, religious beliefs, family dynamics, and a host of other factors not amenable to analysis by computers.  After all, physicians had to balance the purely technical or algorithm-driven approach with personalization of care.  Didn’t they?  Wasn’t the admirable desire to do something for the patient best complemented by a healthy skepticism and sensitivity to the patient’s wishes?  In Benn’s application essay, “The Vanishing Role of Humans in Medical Practice,” he had pointed out that technology did not supply social awareness, creativity, or idealism.  Wasn’t the physician also a humanist? he had asked.  A historian, digging out, interpreting and telling individual stories?


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