Combining Art and Medicine Through the Latest Technology

Combining Art and Medicine through the Latest Technology
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Did you know that Earl Bakken based the pacemaker on a musical metronome? And that the principles of Japanese origami inspired a type of vascular stent that can be contracted to fit through a catheter? Science and art naturally complement each other. In fact, ground-breaking innovations often require mastery in both fields; progress in medical sciences often gets achieved through art and creative expression.


Economic opportunities in science and technology are driving the world economy more than ever before. Thus, investment in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) has been widely supported. However, some advocates for the arts believe that STEM skills alone are not sufficient to bring the progress and achievement the world is looking for when it comes to innovation. For cutting-edge health technology to happen, creativity is an important component. Creativity stimulates the right side of our brain, so it can interact with the left hemisphere and provide balanced cognitive function. Therefore, some have suggested that activities that involve arts should be encouraged in our school curriculums—that STEM should include arts and be transformed into STEAM.

The arts are not just an aesthetic appendix to scholastic aptitude. Knowledge in this area might hold the key to deep scientific knowledge and improvements in health, medicine and other important areas of science.

Professor Robert Root-Bernstein and his colleagues from Michigan State University looked at the biographies of Nobel laureates for science. They observed that almost all of these individuals were also actively engaged in some form of art. Moreover, many of them connected their success in science with art and the creativity the act of creating art fosters.

Root-Bernstein’s analysis showed that Nobel Prize winners were 17 times more likely to be talented artists, when compared to average scientists, and 12 times more likely to write poetry and literature. Based on his analysis, Root-Bernstein stipulates that by stimulating creativity, you stimulate innovation and possibly go beyond the limits of an average achiever.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Historically, medical illustrations were an essential part of medical research. Art was used for the purpose of dissemination of knowledge and as an aid in the learning process. Art remains an important part of medicine today, with illustrators adapting to the digital era and using technology to assist their efforts.

Artwork for medical books, journals, and in the more recent years, mobile applications and websites, requires a special kind of expertise. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine administers a graduate program in Medical and Biological Illustration that provides the necessary knowledge. The program is conducted by the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. When the program was started in 1911 by Henry Walters it was the first of its kind in the world. Recently, illustrations of the department’s Assistant Professor Jennifer Fairman accompanied an article in the Hopkins Medicine magazine titled Cooking up Bone Replacement.

The article presents the work of Associate Professor Dr. Warren Grayson and his team, who have been working on producing replacement bones for the head and face. The text follows the structure of a food recipe, and describes 3-D printing and creating 3-D objects from a digital file using special ultrathin materials. Fairman’s artwork depicts all the necessary ingredients (pulverized natural bone, polycaprolactone, fibrinogen, thrombin, natural broth and beta-glycerophosphate), and the steps of this special “culinary” procedure.

Professor Richard Sawdon Smith, on the other hand, used medical illustrations from the angle of a patient: to seek understanding of illness and the acceptance of disease.​

Sawdon Smith transformed his fascination with anatomy into artwork. Spending a lot of time in hospitals following his HIV diagnosis, he started working on anatomical drawings, facial modeling and personal medical photography. Amongst other projects, he has created a series documenting his blood testing process, which he called Observe. He also decided to tattoo anatomical medical illustration on his skin and became a medical object himself.

The Art and Science of Prosthetics

Creating a realistic-looking and comfortable prosthetic device is a skill that requires a lot of talent and training. The professional behind this is called a clinical anaplastologist. In their work, anaplastologists are aiming to provide the patient with a custom-made prosthesis that is just right for the individual. The process of sculpting and designing the final version of the body part—for example, an ear, a nose or an eye—has many steps. If done by a talented professional, the prosthesis matches the rest of the body unobtrusively and contributes to the patient’s quality of life.

Johns Hopkins Facial Prosthetics Clinic is led by a very talented anaplastologist, Mr. Juan Garcia, who creates prostheses for severe disfigurements that cannot be corrected through surgery. He is very accomplished in matching the color of the new body part with the person’s skin tone. This part requires special artistry. Garcia works with patients who had a trauma, surgery, an illness or were born with a malformation. Garcia fashions his prostheses by hand. He is, however, also very interested in all the latest technological and scientific progress and is continually looking for novel ways to incorporate it into his work. He is especially fascinated by biomaterials and cultivating living tissue—material that can enable a new way of creating even more realistic-looking body parts.

3-D photography is also becoming more accepted in the medical community. It has become more common for physicians to refer their patients for 3D photography. This is a non-invasive procedure that resembles normal photography. The difference, however, is that multiple cameras take the photographs simultaneously. 

Different systems are being developed for different parts of the body, such as the torso, breast and head/face, to help with treatment planning and evaluation. In Northern Ireland, the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust has been working on the development of 3-D breast photography, a project managed by their Medical Illustration Department. The specialized software that supports the procedure is used according to special guidelines that include advice on lighting, the positioning of the patient, background and viewpoint. This work is especially valuable now that many women have immediate breast reconstruction following a mastectomy. With 3-D images, symmetry can be assessed and the surgeon can promptly decide if symmetrization surgery should be recommended. 3D images cannot be viewed by patients at home as viewing requires special software. You can usually ask your doctor to view the photographs during your appointment.

Visual Literacy for Better Medicine

Another important aspect of art is its ability to create new channels for communication. Health professionals frequently come into contact with patients whose abilities to communicate verbally might be hindered for different medical and non-medical reasons. For instance, foreign language and educational barriers can be a challenge. In situations like these, it can be helpful to communicate using other means, such as drawing a simplified diagram for the patient. François Luks from the Department of Pediatric Surgery at Brown University points out that medical sketching can also help organize thoughts and clarify anatomic relationships. This process also helps to illustrate a problem more clearly, both for the patient and the doctor.  

Observation is an extremely important skill that every health professional should develop in order to provide better care. For instance, observation skills can be crucial for diagnosing a patient and predicting treatment outcomes. Research shows that visual arts, especially paintings and film, can help medical students become better at observing.

Professor Katrina Bramstedt, an internationally renowned ethicist from Bond University, Australia, points out that clinical observation consists of more than just a glance. She talks about visual literacy, which requires careful observation to create meaning. Visual literacy helps enable doctors to obtain clinical information from patients who might not be able to express things directly. Bramstedt advocates linking medical humanities content with scientific content. For example, she envisages medical illustrators co-teaching a course in anatomy. Her study found that medical students generally support the inclusion of visual arts in medical school curriculum.

However, she also recognizes that there are some who might perceive it as an unnecessary distraction from their more traditional scientific studies. Nonetheless, she hopes that future doctors will benefit from a more balanced curriculum by being exposed to both humanistic and scientific viewpoints. 



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