The Modern Art of Medicine

M_KaminskiGuest blogger, Martin Kaminski is a Research Associate in the Gastrointestinal Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and will soon take up a Speciality Training in Internal Medicine at King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London, UK.

'The art of medicine' is a turn of phrase that finds its place in conversation now and then. Along with the art of calligraphy, the art of painting and so many other categories of art, we judge medicine befitting of the distinction of artistic endeavor. Few seem to speak of engineering, chemistry and applied mathematics as forms of art--whether fairly or not. But rather than allow medicine to be relegated with the rest of its kindred empirical sciences, we make an exception on account of its privileged, dual nature. Medicine may be a science, but in illness, health, life and death, medicine also touches upon the most basic aspects of our humanity.

Then as doctors, why do I and so many of my colleagues feel as uncomfortable as we do in the company of artists, musicians and the few-and-far-in-between calligraphist? I suspect it is because we feel that we don’t exactly fit in with the crowd.

Picture the typical arty type in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Shoreditch in London or Queen Street West in Toronto. Picture Damien Hirst, Mario Testino or Lady Gaga. Now in contrast, picture your primary care doctor, the surgeon who took your appendix out, or the emergency room doctor who stitched the cut on your finger. It is more than likely there will not be altogether too much overlap.

That is not to say that there are no doctors who are artists and vice versa. William Carlos Williams’ role in American poetry is difficult to overstate. The Children’s Hospital, a novel by Chris Adrian, a pediatric hematology-oncology fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, brought me to tears. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies is as masterful an amalgamation of metaphor, biography and medicine as one could ever hope for. Furthermore, there is no lack of physicians, surgeons, nurses and allied-health professionals with talent and passion for music, painting and countless other artistic pursuits.

The truth is that medicine does fit under the rubric of art. What it does not blend well with is the occasional regretful byproduct with which art all too often goes hand-in-hand, namely artiness and artifice.

The smells, sights and sounds of medicine--of living and dying--provide a strikingly visceral and real experience. The ephemerality of trends in music, fashion and the like pale in comparison to the sight of a cardiac arrest or an operation to remove a cancerous segment of colon. Trying to pull people back from the precipice of death and sickness on a regular basis makes it that much harder to appreciate the finer points of the asymmetrical haircut of the moment.

At the same time, I cannot help but suspect that my discomfort amongst art & artists stems entirely from simple professional jealousy. Medicine is a hard slog, far too acquainted with bouts of cynicism and resignation. The sacrifices made in terms of holidays with loved ones missed, hours of sleep lost and cold sweats overcome may lead to a calm composure and maturity in the face of suffering and calamity, but they have their price.

I used to cringe when I came across initiatives to combine modern art and medical education. I worried at the prospect of physicians being trained to become Twitter navel gazers. Thoughts of horrible narcissistic medical poetry loomed in my head.

But now I have realize that those worries were unfounded--no medical student or doctor is writing bombastic modern art captions at the Tate Modern or MOMA in lieu of their patients’ medical histories. Instead, deliberate exposure to art in medicine provides a chance to further critical thinking skills in an additional environment, to understand empathy more fully in the context of artistic representations, and to experience the continued artistic grand tradition of our time-honored profession.

If some of my colleagues and I ever felt uncomfortable in arty crowds, we never should have in the first place. The paintbrush and the stethoscope are kindred spirits, each documenting the human condition in its own way.

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