COMMENTARY

Medicine and Art

M. Therese Southgate, MD

Disclosures

August 24, 2007


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The question I have been most frequently asked during my years with the JAMA covers is: "Why art on the cover of a medical journal? What has medicine to do with art?"

Let's look at what medicine and art have in common:

First, they share a common goal: to complete what nature has not.

Second, they have a common substrate, the physical, visible world of matter.

More significant, however, are the similar qualities of mind, body, and spirit demanded of the practitioners of each, painter and physician.

Chief among them is an eye: the ability not only to observe, but to observe keenly -- to ferret out the tiny detail from the jumble of facts, lines, colors -- the tiny detail that unlocks a painting or a patient's predicament.

Observation demands attention, and this is the key to both art and medicine. Attention is nothing more than a state of receptiveness toward its object, the artist to nature, the viewer to the work of art, the physician to the patient. It is no accident, I believe, that clinicians -- or treating physicians, as they are often called -- are referred to as "attending physicians." "Attention" and "attend" are both derived from the same Latin root meaning "to stretch toward."

Many more "affinities" exist between medicine and the visual arts, but I will close with just one: Medicine is itself an art. It is an art of doing, and if that is so, it must employ the finest tools available -- not just the finest in science and technology, but the finest in the knowledge, skills, and character of the physician. Truly, medicine, like art, is a calling.

And so I return to the question I asked at the beginning. What has medicine to do with art?

I answer: Everything.

That's my opinion. I am Dr. Therese Southgate, Senior Contributing Editor of JAMA.


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