I’ve spoken to many people who have either never heard of these terms as they pertain to the medical field or they scoff at them. I’ve heard the joke too many times, “How much more practice do you need?” We are living in a time of great technological advances and advantages; however, to forget or discount our more organic and intuitive gifts would prevent us from truly benefitting from additional sources of information and ultimately, from greater success.
The “art of medicine” is a term for the general routine of a physician to use learned knowledge of the sciences: biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, physiology and chemistry; and applying that information to solve a medical dilemma for a complex being. The origin of the word “art” means “skill or craft”. The “practice” of medicine means to carry on a profession as opposed to the alternative interpretation of to learn by repeat performance. Humans are complex individuals in that our actions and reactions to external and internal stimuli are influenced by emotions, memory, genetics, environment and experiences. Our reaction to a particular illness is influenced by those factors which in turn may dictate how well our bodies are able to tolerate that insult and which type of treatment option would best help.
Some of what physicians learn in medical school and specialty training is to know the most common presentations for the most common medical illnesses, of which there are many, and how to treat them. We also learn how to figure out what we don’t know or what isn’t readily obvious by approaching the problem systematically. In fact, physicians are among the few professionals who continue to hone our craft on a daily basis and are required by law to prove that we are furthering our knowledge with continuing education at regular intervals. Unfortunately, while we continue to devise ways to treat and cure old illnesses there will always be new ones to conquer in order to guarantee survival of our species. There is an infinite number of ways that our bodies may respond to our ever changing environment and despite what insurance companies would like to be the case, there is no finite algorithm for how the human body and mind should or could react to illnesses and medical treatments.
An aspect of the art of medicine that can’t be replaced by technology is the human collaboration. If physicians were to rely solely on technology or book knowledge to solve a problem, we would be ignoring a valuable source of information; the patient herself. For example, two people may have the same medical problem but have different symptoms while two more people may have different illnesses with very similar symptoms. The source of pain in the absence of visible trauma is particularly difficult to diagnose because everyone may have a different perception and description of their distress. The “art” in deducing the correct diagnosis and treatment plan for each person is in gleaning crucial information by listening, being empathetic, asking questions, performing a good physical examination and believing the person’s experience. A good doctor is a confidant, friend, teacher and detective. While the field of medicine continues to grow in awe inspiring ways with new technologies, our greatest strength will always be in practicing our art every day.