How Creative Thinking Can—and Should—Inform Medical Science – Literary Hub

Let’s consider Jill L, a well-dressed woman who comes to a busy, inner-city ER late one Saturday night with vague symptoms that include chest pain and shortness of breath. She’s easily the best-dressed and best-smelling person in the entire ER, and that includes the staff. The young ER doc isn’t that concerned about anything serious at first, but something doesn’t sit right, and he returns several times to clarify her symptoms. He’s left with little in order to latch onto except chest pain and shortness of breath, so that’s where he goes.

Could this be a possible heart attack? It’s unlikely. She’s in her mid-thirties with no cardiac risk factors. Maybe a blood clot shot to the girl lung? The workup stretches through the night, plus yet she sleeps undeterred by the tumult around her. When daylight comes, and apologizes for being unable to find an explanation for her symptoms, she knuckles sleep from her eyes, offers a smile, and says how much the girl appreciates his efforts.

The particular young EMERGENY ROOM doc is diligent, courteous, and devoid of any imagination. He never thinks to ask why? Why did this impeccably dressed woman change obvious evening plans to come to this particular ER at this time of night time for what sounds like hazy concerns, when there is nothing obscure about her? Her eye-catching diamond ring and wedding band didn’t spark questions. Sleeping alongside these grumpy, snoring strangers on an uncomfortable stretcher seemed preferable to curling up in home inside her comfortable bed along with her spouse or partner, who isn’t here.

If he’d asked, she might have told him the real reason for the girl visit—hours earlier, before all the testing. For years, she’d endured physical plus emotional abuse from her husband, and she’d finally, finally had enough.

The doctor who rushed to find the answer rather than acknowledge the particular nagging uncertainty, who chased her signs and symptoms but failed to engage with the landscape of the girl story, was a young me at the start of my medical career.

Not-knowing asks that physicians think more like artists, those who are experts in the practice associated with uncertainty, plus focus more on process.

In his book A Fortunate Man , the portrait of a country doctor in rural England, John Berger writes: “Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements, and accidents take place. ”

Berger challenges our common understanding of landscapes. He provokes the reader in order to consider how we navigate these physical and emotional spaces, this magnificent, mysterious, plus sometimes treacherous terrain hidden from others or unrecognizable as the space that will requires attention. I believe these difficulties aren’t commonly addressed in medical training, because they require a critical concept that one might consider antithetical to medical practice— “not-knowing. ”

I borrowed this notion of “not-knowing” from the particular writer Donald Barthelme’s essay of the same name. In this article, Barthelme describes the act of writing, and the creative arts in general, as a process of dealing with not-knowing. The writer is someone who, when embarking upon a messy task, doesn’t know what to do. Problems are crucial to not knowing, and not-knowing is crucial to art. Embracing problems is not only critical to the particular creative process, Barthelme states, but the seriousness from the artist is defined by the significance of the problems they take on.

Working with patient stories will be a creative investigation. It requires a sensitivity to what’s missing within the landscape or what’s concealed. From the position associated with “not-knowing” we remain open when symptoms don’t make sense and find comfort inside that openness. It sounds counterintuitive, but all of us need more not-knowing because medicine has an uncertainty problem. In 1989, Dr. Jerome Kassirer, former editor from the New England Journal of Medicine , wrote, “Absolute certainty within diagnosis is usually unattainable, no matter how much information we gather, how many observations we all make plus how numerous tests we perform. ”

Uncertainty is a cognitive challenge that’s felt in the particular body, and it doesn’t feel good. Personally, doubt can feel like anything from a mild allergic reaction to a panic attack. A quick fix for the discomfort that comes with uncertainty is certainty—or at least its pretense. Under the pressures of clinical practice, our instinct is usually to reach for more data, which usually means more diagnostic testing. Today, medicine doesn’t suffer for a lack of knowledge. Researchers perform an impressive job associated with generating information. One study reported that seventy-five medical trials and eleven systematic reviews are usually published every day. But such abundance poses challenges, including keeping up, making sense of it almost all, and separating the signal from the noise.

The ability to welcome uncertainty as a place of unfolding possibility is definitely a crucial part of doctoring.

So majestic are these mountains of information, the limitations are usually not immediately apparent. The problem isn’t uncertainness, per se, however the clinician’s relationship in order to it. As we saw along with Jill L, more data doesn’t promise more certainty if it’s in the particular service associated with the wrong questions. Even the best information gleaned through studying populations of patients is helpful only once I’ve defined the problem for which this data applies.

It can be the wrong tool with regard to providers unprepared for the complexity, ambiguity, instability, and value conflicts that are often the source of real anxieties in medical practice. The strict focus on information can even be dangerous if it blinds us to other lines of inquiry, and distracts us from wading into other forms associated with data buried in stories. Taking this path in to stories never encountered before can be a source of pain, too. It doesn’t guarantee answers, yet it’s usually the only chance for all of us to discover the particular very thing we did not know we were looking regarding.

Barthelme creates about how issues present opportunities to push our thinking into unanticipated directions; without problems, there would be no invention. With Jill T, I felt stuck, which produced the boxed-in panic because being stuck in medicine can imply failure. This message was drilled into me early in my medical coaching. A fourth-year medical student shared this particular bit of wisdom from the beginning of the third-year clerkships that he learned through his previous year upon the wards: “You could be wrong, but never in doubt. ”

Through the lens associated with not-knowing, we have permission to be stuck. We welcome becoming stuck. It might be the only clue that will we’re on to something, our own inner alarm system quietly screaming for us to pay attention.

Developing comfort with uncertainty can be hard whenever physicians are incentivized for having the answers, not intended for owning up to what they don’t know. Outcome metrics don’t reward physicians to get not-knowing. However, when there’s a disconnect between the tales we tell and stories people experience, and a patient’s deepest troubles are often found between ranges, in the silences and oblique language that signals evasion, fear, or even mistrust, the ability to sit along with uncertainty must be encouraged and valued.

I wasn’t comfortable admitting my confusion to Jill L, in order to confess all that I didn’t know. Exactly how did I change our focus and learn about the particular real reason for Jill L’s visit? I did not. She took pity on me, or so I think. In the morning, prior to discharging her home, We asked whether there was anyone we might call ahead to get the girl. She made a passing comment regarding not wanting to contact her husband. Even I picked up on that will elliptical phrasing—what she was not saying yet wanted me personally to hear. She swung the door wide open as far as it could go, plus all I had to do was curl into a ball of shame and roll inside.

Not-knowing begins with a solid foundation of medical understanding. Without that, it’s hard to know exactly what you don’t know.

Not-knowing should not be confused with ignorance. It’s not lack of information or poor application associated with knowledge. I actually should know the correct antibiotics for treating hospital-acquired pneumonia. I better have a ruptured aortic aneurysm in the forefront of my mind when considering an older patient along with the sudden onset of abdominal discomfort. Not-knowing begins with the solid foundation of medical knowledge. Without that, it is difficult to understand what you don’t know.

Not knowing is a muscle that can become stronger and stabilized just through teaching and interrogation of our thinking process, starting with the decisions all of us make even before we think we’re making decisions. For example, why do we choose specific details in a patient’s story to focus on—like chest pain plus difficulty breathing in Jill L’s case— and not really others? The particular story I created about Jill L was very different from the particular one she was telling.

A richly documented history of signs and symptoms and past medical difficulties can still miss the troubles and needs plaguing a particular person with a moment in their own lives. Listening to a story is a different exercise than listening in order to a patient’s symptoms. This requires many of the same muscles as creative writing. Whenever writing tales, you move into what Eudora Welty calls “open areas. ” You’re aware associated with characters, the particular choices they have to make, and how the stakes can amplify very quickly. You’re also sensitive to the narrative directions not taken. The elements that do not belong or make feeling. The dialogue that takes you by surprise. By thinking this way with Welty’s open spaces, the physician can resist the urge in order to impose the wrong structure, a false ending, or even yield a quick judgment.

Looking back, We recognize just how much of the conversation with Jill T was subtext, and I actually hadn’t paid attention to was between the outlines, the gaps in the girl story. Not only didn’t I know where to look, I wasn’t savvy enough in order to realize there was clearly a curtain behind which I had to look. Patients don’t always share their particular grave concerns directly. They’ll tell stories and expect physicians in order to probe plus pick up on their feelings of fear, anger, or anxiety and ask them questions.

Story isn’t the particular vehicle toward a diagnosis, it’s the destination. And when the patient’s tale becomes unwieldy or does not point to an obvious solution, it’s easy enough in order to engage along with patients at the level associated with story. “I understand, a person have heart problems, your stomach hurts, your feet tingle, you’re weak and tired, you have headaches plus body aches, you have a rash that went away, your stomach is bloated, and your urine smells strange. Take me through your day today, and what you were doing and what exactly was bothering you that will made you say enough, I possess to go to the ER. ”

Narrative is an “invitation to problem finding, not a lesson within problem solving, ” states the story scholar Jerome Bruner. “It is deeply about plight, about the road instead of regarding the inn to which usually it leads. ”

Story is about trouble. Something has gone awry. And is not that the reason why people are usually so interested in tales about illness? What’s gone awry isn’t only our bodies. There are other threats in play: our identity, our relationship with the bodies, our conception of ourselves, plus our relationships with other people. A common thread that runs through various unrelated complaints is a patient’s fear of losing control. Tale provides a landscape where these people can express and validate their experiences.

For just about all the pronouncements about technological innovation disrupting and transforming medication, I believe the platform associated with story—patients informing stories in order to physicians plus physicians telling stories back to patients—is a powerful tool pertaining to dealing with the critical challenge in medicine—working through uncertainty. Without story at its core, medicine can’t practice responsible, evidence-based care.

Without having story on its core, medicine can’t practice responsible, evidence-based care.

So how do we all cultivate a physician’s comfort with doubt? In practical terms, not-knowing asks that physicians think a lot more like artists, those people who are experts within the exercise of uncertainness, and concentrate read more about procedure. Making artwork reflects our own beliefs and how we think about the particular world. Whatever is produced represents an accounting of our mind at work. Process receives less interest in medication than outcomes. Outcome measurements are important, but I fear that the emphasis on results has diminished the worth of other practices foundational to medicine but harder to quantify.

We’d like believe we’re savvy to what’s going on in the minds, that will our decisions are the linear string of conscious thoughts. Nevertheless, my impressions and beliefs often appear out of the dark quiet, a product associated with insecurities as much as reason. I must recognize when there are usually curtains plus find methods for throwing all of them back.

Barthelme writes concerning the purposes of art, yet he speaks to our function in medication, too: that art is really a true account of the activity of the particular mind; art thinks ever of the world; and art’s project, ultimately, is certainly to much better the world. This is a difficult task, but taking upon this problem appeals to the particular seriousness associated with the artist in most of us, especially when we are wearing the white coat.

When I was caring for Jill D, I has been aware of the prevalence of interpersonal violence (IPV), exactly how it permeates all socio-economic classes. Screening for IPV wasn’t standard back then, yet I knew many victims present with vague complaints, that they often visit a healthcare setting multiple times just before their troubles come in order to light. I was well aware that a significant percentage of sufferers won’t come forward on their own, but will open up whenever asked directly by clinicians. My issue wasn’t “knowing” but “not-knowing”: failing to recognize the particular landscape and the importance associated with traveling this.

Imagination is necessary to understand another human, not only what’s going on in their story but also what can or should be. My growth as the physician has been, plus continues in order to be, interwoven with our growth as a writer. Writing isn’t a linear process. It frequently requires detours and tangents to find out what you’re composing about. I’m inspired simply by creative performers like the poet Mark Doty, that describes uncertainty as a good thing, just how in “in any process of inquiry, our uncertainty will be our ally. ” The opportunity to welcome doubt as a host to unfolding possibility is the critical part of doctoring, too. Occasionally, the queries we inquire attest to our scientific acumen because much while if not more compared to the answers we offer.


Excerpted from Tornado of Life: A Doctor’s Journey Through Constraints and Creativity inside the IM OR HER by Dr . Jay Baruch. Copyright © 2022. Available from MIT Press.

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