Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) loved law, writing, and medicine, and jumped from one to the other until he settled on medicine as the career that brought him the most satisfaction, despite precocious success in poetry (his 1830 “Old Ironsides” poem was instrumental in stopping the planned destruction of the old U.S.S. Constitution ship, which is still preserved in Boston today). As a physician, dean of Harvard Medical School, and inventor, he continued to write poetry that would be published and celebrated. He swam in elite New England literary circles containing the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (do people with three names attract each other?), and they pushed him to contribute to their monthly magazine, which Holmes himself named “The Atlantic Monthly”—still alive today. He used his writing skills to call for then-innovative medical reform (like the importance of using a stethoscope, or cleaning medical instruments), and also to aptly name things that would later become very popular (like “anesthesia”).
The ideal of the “Renaissance man,” emerging from its eponymous era, was a person who had broad interests and was an expert in many different things, often in fields conventionally considered to be in opposition with each other. Engineer, painter, and anatomy expert Leonardo Da Vinci is often considered the quintessential Renaissance man. Holmes was what I like to call a “Renaissance Physician.” It’s not just that he was capable and skillful at doing many things in tandem with his medical career, it’s that he wanted to do all those things, and saw them as supporting his career, not detracting from it. And he was not alone in that. William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963), the modernist poet who wrote the famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” that permeates many American English poetry lessons, was also a successful pediatric and family medicine physician.
There are also physicians whose creative works are related to medicine itself. They provide an honest lens into the physician psyche and state of our medical system. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and writer, gained fame with books such as “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” literary case studies of the psychoses of patients. Jerome Groopman, a hematologist oncologist, provides surprising insights into the decision-making strategies of doctors in “How Doctors Think.” Physician Danielle Ofri writes candidly about the emotional burnout that can result from the practice of medicine in her book “What Doctors Feel.” Many cities have medical symphony orchestras: highly skillful performing groups, filled with people who are doctors by day, musicians by night. Doctor and flutist René Laennec (1781-1826) invented the first stethoscope, which was built out of wood, just like his flutes.
Not to be left out of the startup boom, in the last decade, medical-entrepreneurs have proliferated: doctors like Rushika Fernandopulle, who started the innovative primary care network Iora Health, and Amy Baxter, who created a device called Buzzy that makes shots less painful. Doctors are increasingly creating advocacy organizations, like now-surgeon general Vivek Murthy’s healthcare reform advocacy group Doctors for America, and emergency medicine doctor Leanna Wen’s “Who’s my Doctor?” physician financial transparency movement. In our modern world and age of the Internet, a creative doctor could be someone who has skills in art (like music, writing, photography, and film), but also in advocacy, political commentary, engineering, technology, and entrepreneurship. Creativity is by definition “the use of the imagination or original ideas,” and creativity is what we’ll need in the face of a healthcare system that is increasingly described as “broken.”
Are we encouraging creative people to go into the medical profession? Are we encouraging people already in the medical profession to be creative? Celebrated Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) started writing because he needed money on the side; being a doctor, back then, was not a profitable practice. But he grew to see the emotional value of writing. He lusted for the opportunity to be creative, while never losing his humanitarian impulse and sense of duty in practicing medicine: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress,” he wrote. “When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it’s disorderly, it’s not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity.” Writing, art, and advocacy do not yield certain financial profit in this century, yet medicine does. Sometimes we mistake money-making endeavors as the only useful, practical foci. But being creative can be thought of as a practical career move, too. It is hypothesized that doctors with creative purpose and a sense of medicine as their “calling” are less likely to burn out, more likely to excel at communication and problem-solving, and more likely to innovate in research and reform.
The people at the forefront of changing the healthcare landscape are doctors who have chosen to get dual educations—in business, law, public policy, fine arts, research, and more. If they didn’t eloquently provide their opinions, create moving documentary films, merge engineering or coding knowledge with biology, or lobby on Capitol Hill for increased research funding and patient rights, we might never know progress in medicine. Our tried and true formulas bring incremental and necessary progress in medicine, but for groundbreaking change, we need creativity.
Writer and CEO of the Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson, who wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, notes that Jobs repeatedly named the source of his unique talents as his position at the intersection of the science and the humanities, so much so that he would put a slide of a street sign showing the intersection of “Liberal Arts” and “Science” at the end of product demo presentations. “Human creativity involves values, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, personal consciousness, and yes, a moral sense,” said Isaacson in a 2014 lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities. “These are what the arts and humanities teach us – and why those realms are as valuable to our education as science, technology, engineering, and math.” Creativity and humanism are necessary to control and guide our grasp of the medical technology we use and the differentials we run through repeatedly in our minds. An online medical record that does not consider the joy and necessity of patient-doctor interaction is not creative enough. A doctor who cannot appreciate the unique experience of his patient is not empathetic enough because he is not creative enough to stand in her shoes. A physician who does not experience the art in beautiful sutures, the gravity of heartfelt conversation, or the rush of believing in morals as much as molecules, is not creative enough.
I have started Doctors Who Create (DWC) because I believe we need a rebirth of the idea of the “Renaissance Physician.” Every doctor should be encouraged to be creative, as he or she defines it. “Creativity” should stop being at odds with the science of medicine, because historically, it has not been so. This means a broader concept of pre-medical excellence. This means a more diverse medical school class. This means greater and more flexible research funding, and a less hierarchical academic culture. This means giving residents and attendings time to attend hackathons, encouraging them to sign or start petitions, and teaching them how to publish opinions and observations. Above all, this means finding the doctors who already create—there are many—celebrating them, and allowing them to create a pipeline for younger physicians and students. DWC is a hub for writing on creativity and medicine, career advice from creative doctors, and future events and opportunities in medical humanities, political advocacy, and entrepreneurship.
Let’s move to a medical culture that rewards creativity, not conformity.
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