Is the practice of anesthesia an art or a science? Is the practice of medicine an art or a science?Over one hundred years ago the father of modern medicine, Dr. William Osler of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, made the following statements: “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability,” and “The practice of medicine is an art, based on science.”


In my career I’ve practiced three specialties at Stanford: internal medicine, emergency medicine, and anesthesiology. My career has bridged clinics, operating rooms, intensive care units, emergency rooms, and helicopter trauma medicine. I’ve practiced in four different decades.

With all respect to Dr. Osler’s legacy, what I’m witnessing in the clinical arena today tells me 21st century medical practice will be very much about science and very little about art.

A Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of science reads “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.”

An Oxford English dictionary definition of art reads “the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.”

Which of these definitions best fits your medical practice?

To me, the answer is clearly “science.”

I searched through all the secondary definitions of “art” in multiple dictionaries, and found very few definitions of “art” that apply to the practice of medicine. The closest fits were: art is a skill or special ability e.g. a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice, from the Oxford English Dictionary; or art is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation e.g. the art of making friends, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Medical school training consists of four years of intensive study of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, microbiology, pathology, diseases, and the treatment for diseases. Core classes require extensive memorization and comprehension of complex scientific facts. In the last two years of medical school, clinical classes require the student to apply this complex science while evaluating individual human patients. New skills acquired at this clinical stage are those of interviewing, history taking, physical examination, interpretation of medical test results, differential diagnosis, and application of appropriate therapies. Mastering the doctor-patient interaction requires an education in empathy, effective listening, respect, and conversation about complex medical topics using parlance non-medical laypersons can comprehend.

Creative activities such as painting, music, literature, and dance are absent from the preceding paragraph. There is an “art” to making the correct diagnosis, and there is an “art” to applying empathy, effective listening, respect, and conversing about complex medical topics in language non-medical laypersons can comprehend. In this context, “art” connotes those secondary definitions, as in “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.” A talented doctor with years of experience is a skilled artist of medical practice, just as World Series hero Madison Baumgartner is a skilled artist of pitching baseballs. A student entering a career in medicine in the 21st century must prepare herself or himself for the scientific rigors of the job. The opportunity to create is largely absent.

Painters, musicians, authors, and dancers create original art, some of it fantastic and some mundane. In medicine this type of creativity is rare, but it does exist. The medical laboratory researchers who cured smallpox and polio changed the world by creating their discoveries. The medical researchers seeking cures for Alzheimer’s disease, Ebola, or HIV are in a constant quest for the discovery of original ideas. Physician authors such as the Bay Area’s Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) and Khaled Hosseini, (The Kite Runner) wrote outstanding literary works and are very creative. Many physicians express creative skills in their hobbies as musicians, artists, sculptors, actors, dancers, and writers. These physicians earn their living with their primary jobs in medicine, and expend their creative energies in these secondary outlets in their spare time.

A generation ago the ideal physician may have been depicted in the persona of Dr. Marcus Welby, a fictional television doctor. Dr. Welby was the Atticus Finch of medicine, a kind, smiling, gray-haired physician who spent each week’s sixty-minute show working on healing and treating one patient’s problems. His heroic skills were wisdom, intelligence, empathy, and a steadfast dedication to that one patient for the entire TV show each week. Although he was portrayed as a savvy, highly-schooled professional, Dr. Welby thrived by an almost god-like ability to feel his way through a difficult case and create a workable diagnosis and solution. In Dr. Welby’s office practice each patient posed a dilemma he had to solve during an hour-long television episode. In today’s office practice each patient’s complaints must be addressed in a twenty-minute period of time, after which the physician must enter all the information into a cumbersome version of a computerized Electronic Medical Record (EMR) before meeting the next patient for the next twenty-minute encounter.

In the 21st century operating room practice of anesthesiology, we typically have ten minutes to talk to a patient prior to rendering them unconscious. After anesthetic induction the patient is changed into a sleeping human who carries objective values for blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, temperature, and exhaled gas concentrations. The practice of anesthesiology becomes very much like a physiology experiment with the twin goals for the patient of a) guaranteeing sleep, while b) striving to maintain perfect vital signs. Where is the art? Is there art in varying techniques to accomplish these goals? Is it an “art” to anesthetize shoulder arthroscopy patient #1 with propofol and sevoflurane, and then to anesthetize shoulder arthroscopy patient #2 with propofol and an interscalene block? Rather than “art,” I’d call this using clinical judgment based on experience and scientific information.

Let me point out several current trends which are moving physician jobs further away from any creativity:

1) The organization of medicine into large corporate practices, with the variability of practice minimized. I recently attended a clinical lecture Stanford Medical Center in which the topic was “Variation is the Enemy of Good.”

2) The goal of organizing patient management into detailed and specific algorithms for physicians to follow, to insure they’re all treating the same medical problems the same way. In the Forbes article Medicine Is An Art, Not A Science: Medical Myth Or Reality?(July 12, 2014), author Robert Pearl MD, the CEO of the Permanente Medical Group, describes the value of protocols for the operating room, for treatment of stroke, and for prevention of heart attack, and concludes “We can predict that doctors who today refuse to follow the national recommendations for treating patients with strokes, heart attacks and a variety of other medical problems will be hard to convert. But we must change their behavior. The health of their patients and our nation depends on it.” Examples of such protocols in anesthesia practice are algorithms introduced for the management of total knee and hip replacement anesthesia, using a combination of neuroaxial block, regional nerve block such as adductor canal block, plus multimodal pain medication regimens (Gandhi and Viscusi, Multimodal Pain Management Techniques in Hip and Knee Arthroplasty, The New York School of Regional Anesthesia ( Volume 13, J u l y 2009, pages 1-10).

3) A move to a “shift work” mentality in modern medical practice. A generation ago an MD would follow up on his patients until all the work was done for a given day, in addition to being night on-call for patients of his partners or colleagues once a week. In the past I worked for the largest HMO in California. The HMO culture promoted a 40-hour-per-week shift work mentality for physicians. When three p.m. arrived, many doctors signed off to the next doctor coming on duty to take over their job.

4) The promotion of non-physicians into the workforce to perform roles previously handled by MDs. Due to an inadequate supply of primary care doctors, the future of clinic medicine in large corporate medical practices will likely be legions of nurse practitioners and/or physician assistants supplying much of primary care.

5) Pursuit of artificial intelligence in medicine (AIM) as a goal. A recent Wall Street Journal article, IBM Crafts a Role for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine: Deal for Merge Healthcare is step toward training IBM’s Watson software to identify cancer, heart disease (August 11, 2015) described a significant advance in AIM technology. It’s not hard to imagine artificial intelligence computers making diagnoses and treatment decisions in the future.

Are these trends bad? Time will tell. The trends are driven by economics, and don’t expect to see them reverse. Variability will decrease and so will the feeling that medicine is an art.

Let’s hope future generations of physicians will still quote Osler’s claim that “the practice of medicine is an art, based on science.” May empathy, effective listening, respect, and conversation always be critical skills envied and mastered by all physicians.


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