Should doctors study art and literature?

Should doctors study art and literature?

Dr KK Aggarwal

Emotions make up an important core of the doctor-patient relationship. A patient who comes to the doctor is emotionally vulnerable. He/she is struggling with feelings of anger, sadness, despair, guilt, irritability, anxiety, fear, etc., which may at times manifest as negative behavior. Failure to recognize these emotions of the patients in the rush of the day and accordingly respond in an empathetic manner often result in disputes, which may even manifest as violence against doctors.

Suppressing emotions or feelings can manifest as disease. The stress of holding in strong feelings can increase blood pressure and heart rate and increase muscle tension. On the other hand, disclosing or expressing deep emotions can boost immune function as well as mood and well–being.

As doctors we need to know and understand humanity. Art and literature are both expressions of emotions or feelings arising from human experiences. This way both help to understand the emotions of a person.

In this age of litigation, doctors are relying more and more on lab tests and imaging methods. By doing so, they may be losing out on one of the most important skills for a clinician i.e. observational skill.

Simply knowing the facts is not enough to practice medicine today. Medicine is an art based on science. And it is an uncertain science at that. No two patients are alike. Also, diseases often do not present in a classical, text book manner. Doctors need to be alert to recognize all atypical signs and symptoms. Sir William Osler said, “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.”

Doctors need to broaden their horizon and avoid limiting their thinking. Study of art is one way they can do this.

Studying art or exposure to art, both visual and literary, can help doctors improve their observational skills during “inspection – the first step in patient examination” by training their eye to notice details that they might have otherwise not noticed to become better diagnosticians. Art also enhance their critical thinking and helps doctors to better understand facial expressions of the patient leading to a positive doctor-patient interaction.

Bill Kirkup, a public health physician wrote in 2003 in the BMJ, “We have lost something of the art of medicine in a headlong rush to embrace the science” (BMJ. 2003 Aug 16; 327(7411): 401).

Developing visual skills in art observation can help doctors, including medical students, to pick up more subtle clues to diagnosis and sharpen their diagnostic acumen and also communicate more effectively with their patients.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this write up are entirely my own.

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