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Discovering Medical Students’ Full Potential: A Science and an Art

Lee, Tamara J.; Kohn, Martin PhD; Young, James B. MD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31826cf162
Response to the 2012 Question of the Year

Ms. Lee is a fourth-year medical student, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

Dr. Kohn is associate professor, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, and director, Program in Medical Humanities, Center for Ethics, Humanities, and Spiritual Care, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio.

Dr. Young is professor of medicine and executive dean, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, and chairman, Cleveland Clinic Endocrinology & Metabolism Institute, Cleveland, Ohio.

Correspondence should be addressed to Ms. Lee, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, 9500 Euclid Ave., NA-24 Cleveland, OH 44195; e-mail:

In a message to tomorrow’s doctors, Dr. E.O. Wilson said, “The successful scientist thinks like a poet but works like a bookkeeper.” 1 Each week, we hear pleas from the medical community for young doctors to remain empathic, ethical, and emotional in the face of an educational path that involves memorization, conformity, and all-too-brief clinical encounters. One piece of advice to doctors and doctors-in-training has been to maintain the creativity they possessed before the MCAT.2 In fact, dozens of leading academic medical centers across the country have responded to suggestions like this, knowing that we need to get creative if we’re going to rehumanize the doctor–patient–community relationship.

Doctors and doctors-in-training must go beyond the bare minimum of learning technical knowledge. It is now common practice for medical school curricula to include course work that touches on the humanities, ethics, and law of medicine. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that incorporating the “art in medicine” into both classroom and clinical teaching may be the key to encouraging the full potential of our medical trainees. Art in medicine includes, but is not limited to, the visual, musical, performing, literary, or electronic arts as a means of creatively presenting the human condition. By utilizing creative and performing arts in medical schools and teaching hospitals, we can encourage doctors to connect their scientific knowledge with the fullness of the human experience—emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical.

Leading medical schools around the country seem to agree that fostering the use of students’ full creative potential yields benefits not only for the individual doctor-in-training but also for the patient and the community. The Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons offers a multitude of electives, including narrative photography and life drawing, which allow students to observe and be present while expressing stories of humanism through images. Students at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine regularly reflect upon clinical experiences through narrative reflection. Through partnerships with local artists, these stories are transformed into community art—children’s storybooks on health and well-being, theatrical performances on “the voices of healing,” and “traveling stanzas” on public transportation to promote healing in the community. Students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine team up with local museums to explore facial expression and recognition, and they subsequently partner with a local school for autism to improve autistic children’s ability to observe, describe, and interpret emotions. The University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine’s Human Condition Magazine and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine’s Stethos are just two examples of medical school publications that serve as forums for the creative work of their students.3,4

It is time to go beyond minimum competencies, memorization, and performing for the test. These standards are necessary but not sufficient; they are only the skeleton of learning strategies and outcomes for our future doctors. It is time to rediscover the vibrancy of the art in medicine.

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1. Wilson EO The Social Conquest of Earth. 2012 New York, NY Liverwright Publishing Corporation
2. Yurkiewicz I Is medical school admission squashing creativity?. 2012 Scientific American’s Unofficial Prognosis Blog April 12, 2012. Accessed July 9
3. . Stethos Medical Humanities Journal of the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. 2012 Accessed July 9
4. Human Condition Magazine: An Art and Literary Magazine of the University of California. 2012 San Diego School of Medicine Accessed July 9
© 2012 Association of American Medical Colleges