written by Brett Popplewell at The Toronto Star (June 7, 2008).
"We are more than just repositories of evidence-based knowledge," says Dr. James Orbanski, a family physician, former president of Médicins Sans Frontières and the keynote speaker at the conference.
"The phenomenon, to use the broadest term, of a person who is both a doctor and a cellist, or a doctor and a poet, or a doctor and an artist, demonstrates this perfectly."
Orbanski, whose work as a physician in Rwanda was recently documented by the National Film Board, says people like Vincent Lam, the Giller Award winning doctor-turned-novelist, are examples of how the interests of many physicians often transcend the barrier between the arts and sciences.
Before the medical revolution of the 19th century, the study of the human body was as connected to the fine arts as it was to medicine.
With the advent of chemistry, biology, laboratories and new technologies, the traditional art of medicine was revolutionized. Ill-advised practices like bloodletting and purging became less common as cures for everything from consumption to syphilis.
As the scientific understanding of bacteria and viruses improved, science's importance to medicine increased and the teaching of what some refer to as the art of medicine – the human communication between doctor and patient – dwindled. As art and the humanities became less important, doctors with poor bedside manners proliferated.
Until recently, Canadian medical students had to learn their human touch during residency (medical school's version of an apprenticeship) by watching the interaction between senior doctors and their patients.
Dr. Peter Singer, a published poet and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, says when he went through medical school 25 years ago, the curriculum was so focused on science that doctors would graduate without ever having been taught about medical ethics and other humanities.
"(I)t was very much focused on science and technology and the scientific understanding of anatomy, physiology (then)," he says.
"We would be taught in lecture halls filled with 200 people and have information thrown at us on medical science.
"I think we've come a very great distance in medical education in the last 25 years on the issues of balancing science and humanistic concerns," he says.
But beyond the humanities, what role, if any, do the fine arts have in modern medicine?
Singer says a doctor's knowledge of poetry and music helps them to understand the human suffering often involved in medicine.After all, a physician well versed in science and technology who also understands poetry is likely more in touch with the humanistic side of life and death, and thus better suited to care for patients on their deathbeds.
Visual art and music have also been recognized for their therapeutic powers and are used in some clinics where patients improve their mental health through painting and where the music of composers like Bach is used to reduce stress."
It is encouraging to see more universities and medical schools incorporating the arts and humanities into health programming. At this blog, "Arts and Health Crossing Borders", you will read many posts and stories about progressive programming at the intersections of the arts and medicine/health currently underway across the country. I was pleased to read this article in the Toronto Star. Such news is an indicator that the work continues to gain momentum.
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