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Embracing the Art of Medicine

Kendracampbell72x721_1Kendra Campbell -- I recently came upon a quote written by Hippocrates, the famous ancient Greek physician who is often referred to as the "Father of Medicine." He once wrote, "Ars longa, vita brevis," which means, "Art is long, life is short." As I read those words, I was immediately stricken by their profundity. It seems that Hippocrates managed to sum up in four words a powerful concept that also conveys my philosophy on life.

After doing my research, I couldn’t find any conclusive evidence about what Hippocrates actually meant when he wrote those words, and it actually doesn’t matter. I know what they mean for me.

I have always been intrigued by the concept of medicine as an art. As someone who possesses both a deep interest in art and science, I’ve frequently found it increasingly difficult to separate the two. I’m not the first person to bring this issue up. Many essays and articles have been written on whether medicine is an art or a science. Not surprisingly, I happen to believe that it is both.

Medicine has certainly come a long way since the time of Hippocrates. The advances we’ve made in medicine and technology are beyond what anyone could have imagined. We now have sophisticated equipment that can perform all kinds of diagnostic tests on the human body. Some people would argue that the science of medicine has advanced so far that the art of medicine has virtually disappeared. I would argue that someone still has to read the MRI, and someone still has to explain to the patient that they only have six months to live, and someone must decide that another round of chemotherapy would do more harm to the patient’s psychological health, even if it would kill more cancerous cells.

I think that the dependence upon the scientific method actually contributes to the art of medicine. One can follow all of the logical steps and perform all the statistical analyses involved in treating a patient, but in the end, it takes the subtle judgment of a human being to decide the best course of action. Not only does the physician apply an artful process to treatment, but the patient does as well. Effective treatment is based on engaging the patient. The healing process is not one-way. It involves both the physician and patient in a synergistic relationship.

I once thought that I had to make a critical choice in my life: to follow my scientific inclinations or my artistic ones. I am passionate about both, and believed that a choice was imminent. And then I found medicine. It’s a field in which one can apply both a rigorous scientific method and a harmoniously applied artistic hand.

As a physician, one has to face life and death on a daily basis. Life is something that is exceedingly precious, yet is something that can be taken away in seconds. Physicians must be able to resolve this seemingly dichotomous dilemma. Perhaps art provides an answer. Art is enduring. It lives and thrives beyond death, in the same way that a person’s lifework can outlive them. Is not a person’s impact on future generations a significant work of art?

Physicians are a most amazing species. A good physician can apply both the science and art of medicine to the treatment of their patients. And in this capacity, they are able to truly appreciate the beauty of life, and the immortality of art.

October 21, 2006 in Kendra Campbell | Permalink


I completely agree with you medicine is an art. An art of healing people. One can produce machines, drugs, computer programs which can diagnose and treat a disease, it can surely cure a person but it cannot heal a person. healing of the person is two folds both physically and psychologically. Mere the presence of the physician calms the patient, takes away half of his fear and the body then takes care of itself. Our drugs just help to hasten the process.
It is necessary therefore for the patient to completely trust the doctor and more so for the doctor to build patient's trust and safegaurd it. It's this process of building trust which is an art and this should be taught in the medical school along with the tonnes of books.

Posted by: Sushanth | Oct 22, 2006 6:51:59 AM

Yes, we are students of the art of healing =)

Posted by: Bellocielo | Oct 22, 2006 11:40:38 PM

Oh yeah.. you definitely hit the right description of medicine -- both an art and a science. It has been drilled into our minds during my freshmen days and we had to buy a book entitled "The Filipino Physician" (ehen, i forgot the author). It is in this book that taught us how medicine is both an art and a science. Yep, I definitely agree with you on this.

Posted by: chunchun | Oct 24, 2006 11:16:42 AM

Thank you for this. I will pass it on to my 13 yo granddaughter who hopes to become a doctor. She loves everything math, chemistry and physics but is also incredibly artistic. Your post will reassure and inspire her, for certain.

Posted by: Peggy | Oct 24, 2006 11:53:11 AM

I've always thought that medicine is a responsibility given to us physicians to safeguard all that is good in life. It is most definitely an art and a science..I know this sounds like rhetoric..but i strongly believe missing one aspect for the other, leads to a tragically lop-sided limp through a life in medicine. Not to glory in our own profession too much though...because life is as much about those who create wonder through stories, music, movies/theater, art, along with those who construct our buildings, grow our food....i know, I'm rambling...but in the midst of all these activities that constitute life and allow each of us to live in synergy, we play out part by being the keepers of health and allowing the continued dependence of one man on his neighbour so all might live.

Posted by: John | Oct 25, 2006 11:32:50 AM

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