The Curbsiders podcast

Why Do Doctors Stop Making Art?

April 18, 2016 | By

“Your Art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your Art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.” -Seth Godin, Linchpin

It’s called the Art of Medicine, so why are we training physicians to be a clone army? I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for a non-traditional applicant to medical school. This kid had completed degrees in both Philosophy and Mathematics. His grades were adequate, but he was told by medical schools that he needed to “show more interest in science classes” and should complete a Masters in Medical Sciences program. What?! My thoughts were that A) they just wanted an extra year’s tuition and B) a non-traditional applicant with skills in mathematics and a knowledge of the humanities is exactly the kind of non-conforming mind that Medicine needs. I guess the folks at Admissions failed to grasp this possibility. So how did we get to this point?

Children are Artists who naturally think outside the box. My toddler wears a bike helmet, backwards t-shirt, oversized shorts with a foam lightsaber tucked into the waistband and mismatched shoes to the park because he likes to dress this way.  He hasn’t yet discovered peer pressure, and you have to admire the kid’s innocence. One rarely encounters this kind of unbridled creativity in anyone above ten years old. In school we are conditioned to follow rules and think about problems in the context of multiple choice tests. The dreamers, labeled “creative types”, are quickly cast aside for anyone who can fill in the correct bubbles on a scantron sheet and keep out of trouble during class.  These “smart ones” quickly learn that following rules and fitting in will bring academic success and lots of attaboys. This safer path of conformity avoids reprimands and more importantly, social ridicule. Medical school  applicants are exceptionally good at playing this game, since entrance into the field of Medicine is largely based upon standardized test scores and checking the right boxes on one’s resume (aka pedigree).

You and I used to be creative, but somewhere along the way to becoming a Physician creativity lost out to natural selection. The rewards for fitting the mold seemed all too great. I stopped writing stories and making short films. You stopped composing, painting, drawing, building, and designing. We let our creativity atrophy while we pursued degrees and training. People may have even told us that we weren’t the “artsy” type and we believed it. This is a big problem and here’s why. First, Burnout is way common among medical students, residents, and physicians alike. A recent study found 54.4 percent of physicians met the criteria(Shanafelt, TD, et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015). Creating Art is one of the best ways that I know to de-stress, promote wellness, and boost morale. Second, patients seem to be quite ingenious in their presentations. They certainly aren’t reading the textbooks and “inside the box” thinking has trouble dealing with such clinical nonsense. Guidelines and algorithms are great, but they require an Artist’s touch before application to real world patients. Finally, the Healthcare crisis facing our Nation won’t be solved by conventional thinking. We cannot afford to bet our future on “followers” who have been heavily selected for their ability to maintain the status quo. Patients and the healthcare system alike will benefit from a new generation of unchained thinkers. 

So, the next time you advise an aspiring physician ask them about their Art. Not only will you promote their general well-being, but you’ll help to stop the spread of an ineffectual clone army.


  1. January 20, 2018, 2:17am Mary Ann Fieffer, MSN, FNP-BC, AOCNP writes:

    Dear Dr. Watto, I found your podcast when I was browsing through I tunes looking for ones in my area of specialty, palliative care and hospice. I have been an advanced practice nurse for 12 years now. I have worked in with oncology and palliative care patients for over 30 years. I LOVE LISTENING TO ALL OF YOU!! As you know, internal medicine is the foundation of our practice. Just want to let you know that I am a new member of your audience...trying to catch up from last years episodes, and appreciate ALL of the hard work that you are all doing to help educate your colleagues out here in the field. Take care, Mary Ann

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