By: Jeff Katra, Kallion Community Member & Family Doctor
Two years before I attended my white coat ceremony, I would have laughed at the proposition that I would soon attend medical school. I was a liberal arts person; not a science one. I had majored in history and government as an undergraduate and would later go on to study both law and history in graduate school. I was adept at reading case law and dissecting the words of people who lived two hundred years ago. Math and science seemed like an entirely different universe. When I chose to become a doctor, I thought I was leaving one world behind and entering another. Yet, in a short time, I would learn that a liberal arts education was not only useful in medicine; it would be a necessary component.
Two events focused my attention on the possibility of a medical career: my father’s cancer diagnosis and the death of my best friend from a heroin overdose. Suddenly, tragedy was not just confined to the words of a Russian novel or the letters between forlorn historical figures; it was manifest. Darkness made visible. My mind searched for ways to escape the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and existential dread. I was an instantaneous Candide bereft of any Pangloss. Still, in destruction, there can be creation. I started thinking about something unexpected. Maybe I could go to medical school and learn how to help others suffering with disease and with their own feelings of helplessness.
During my pre-medical courses and then in medical school, I felt out of place. While I was struggling to remember algebra and learn novel subjects from the ground up, I was surrounded by people who had lived and breathed the hard sciences for years. I suffered through imposter syndrome on a daily basis. It was not until I graduated and started working that I would appreciate how the liberal arts would serve me greatly in medicine.
I choose to become a family doctor and would later add more training in psychiatry and addiction medicine. Almost immediately, I saw how communication skills and emotional intelligence were just as important to being a successful doctor in my chosen fields as actual scientific knowledge. Good healthcare in general practice and mental health begins with a trusting relationship between a doctor and patient. If patients do not trust you, they won’t listen to you, no matter how sage the scientific advice.
Additionally, while some medical fields thrive on objective measurements of illness, family medicine and mental health disciplines are much more subjective. You can’t swab for depression, order a blood test for bipolar disorder, or use a machine to measure whether someone is reeling from alcohol abuse. You have to understand the human condition and how to find crucial information from patients to better treat their maladies. To my surprise, talking to patients was not all that different from interpreting literature, a legal opinion, or the letters or works of historical figures. In all cases, the ability to step out of one’s own shoes and step into those of another is paramount. Empathy is the great hero of both the liberal arts and medicine.
Before the twentieth century, there was not really a distinction made between medicine and the liberal arts. Doctors did not get MD’s or DO’s; they got doctorates in the philosophy of medicine. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the most famous physician of the eighteenth century and founder of modern psychiatry was also a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, we segregate ourselves and our work force into “science people” and “artsy people,” as if there cannot be any useful overlap. In a world of increasing political and social polarization, we need overlap. Our medical system is in desperate need of ethics and humanist values. Our political system needs more objectivity and less emotional echo chambers. Science and the liberal arts are not opposing forces, but necessary complements to each other. In the end, we are all scientists and we are all artists.