What is the Art of Medicine?

“The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.” – William Osler

I have spent literally years of my life pouring over the “science of medicine.” I dedicated innumerable hours to memorizing biochemical pathways, pharmaceutical mechanisms, and equations for physiologic processes.

American Medicine assumes the science of medicine is the most important. We view it as an exceedingly important part of the training process. Yet, any physician will recognize the science only gets you so far.

Sadly, organized medicine dedicated much less of my formal training to learning the other part of medicine, the art. In medical school, the recommendation for learning the art of medicine was simply to watch someone who, in your opinion, was particularly good at it and emulate them.

Thanks, that’s helpful….

No one ever even defined what the art, in fact, was. Even now, when I search for a definition, a significant amount of variability in the definition floats around the internet.

Some say the art of medicine is the space in between the evidence and practice, the judgement we use when science cannot give us a clear answer. The art simply smoothes out the edges of the science in the real world.

On the other hand, others posit the art of medicine is the relationship, empathy, and emotional aspects of doctoring. It is the space we keep for humanity in the practice of medicine. The art of medicine is the properly placed hand on the knee, the right words said in comfort, the knowledge of the patient as a person beyond their disease.

I think both these definitions and all others that I have read sell the art short. They do not give the art its due place in the pantheon of our skills. Only recently have we began trying to teach medical students any skills which approximate the art of medicine.

What is Art, Anyway?

“Science and art,… they seek the truth and the meaning of life, they seek God, [and] the soul….” – Anton Chekhov

I don’t think we can truly answer the question of the what is the art of medicine until we actually understand the goal of art and the artist. Chekhov, who was both an artist and a physician, articulates the overlap of art and science well – seeking truth.

Science and art both quest for truth. Science seeks to understand the rules of the natural world so as to understand it, predict its outcomes, and hopefully influence them for our purposes.

Art, on the hand, seeks to create an entire world, the experiencing of which leads us closer to human truths. These are truths a scientific experiment cannot elucidate, because they exists only in human souls.

The human experience is often a reaction to the chaos of the world around us. Much of what plays havoc with our lives is beyond our control. Through art, humans create worlds where we mute the chaos, understand it, and give it meaning.

So, we will find the art of medicine in its truest form not in clinical judgement or in human actions, but in those moments where we the physician partner with patients to create new worlds in the pursuit of healing.

The Healing Art of Narrative

The essential task of the healing patient-physician relationship is the creation of a world where the destruction and chaos of illness is rendered understandable, and if possible, meaningful.

Which artform allows physicians and patients to create a world where healing is possible where only hours before there was only suffering? It is the art of narrative, of a story’s telling and untelling.

Make no mistake, the history is the first part of a patient encounter because it is the most important. The history, the patient’s narrative of the illness is what creates the backstory in which any healing must occur.

In the very moment when a patient tells you their story, they are creating the world in which their suffering exists and their healing must occur. Narrative must be heard to exist.

The act of hearing, of bearing witness, is just as integral the creation of the world as the telling. Notice the word bear/born in this context. Bearing witness midwives the world of the sufferer into existence.

The Use of Narrative

So, the patient has shared their story, you have born witness. The world has been created. As a clinician, you must accept the history. You can interpret it, but only for yourself.

If, as the clinician, you deny the truth of the history, you deny the existence of the patient and her story altogether. A person whose world has been denied cannot heal. We cannot “correct” the history. We must accept it and move forward in the pursuit of healing.

“A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.” 
― Isaac Babel

It is in these moments I believe a true practitioner of the physician’s art can shine. Through discussion, empathy, reframing, and a healing relationship the patient and the physician can together, begin to build a story about the illness, its affect on the patient and their world which opens the possibility for healing.

A New and Sudden Frailty

I am reminded of a man I saw in follow up for a hospital discharge after a heart attack, or MI. He was in his mid-sixties, generally healthy. No hypertension, no smoking, minimal lipid issues. The MI came out of nowhere.

The ED physician, cardiologist, and hospitalist had all done exemplary science. The physicians diagnosed quickly, treated appropriately, and discharged him with minimal loss of function. Nonetheless, he was in a stupor, rudderless.

Despite being grateful for all that his hospital team had done for him, he still felt less a person than he was before. He was struggling with the sudden transition from being a healthy, active, strong man to a man with a chronic disease. He went from no medicines to at least four daily pills.

As the physician, you must acknowledge the loss. What this man lost was his health innocence. He lost his ability to take his health for granted. He lost his ability to feel strong, vital.

And Now We Create

So, here is the exposed fulcrum of healing. You can imagine how this could go. He retreats into himself and begins to hide from activity that he worries could bring on another heart attack. He gains weight, starts to feel depressed, his relationship suffers.

At this point, he loses more than a small amount of heart muscle, he starts to lose life itself.

This would be possibly as devastating as the MI itself. For what is life without vitality? The deepest art of medicine lies in this moment, when together, we help this man build a new narrative for his life.

Hopefully, the narrative is one rooted in his past and which does not ignore the transition that has occurred but allows him to re-engage with the world as the richer person he now is.

Jan Steen – The Doctor’s Visit

This process is alchemical, because it depends on everything that is individual about the person. It is a tenuous moment.

It is a verbal and emotional dance that weaves the story of healing out of the tattered fibers of loss.

We as physicians in this moment must engage directly with this loss, its grief, and our patients’ human frailty and help them build a road out of the fear. Some people can do this on their own, but many cannot.

That, I argue, is the art of medicine. That is what an algorithm cannot predict and metrics cannot tell us. Not clinical judgement, or acronyms of empathy, but a truly engaged art of healing.

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