Two teams went head to head to explore if Medicine should ever be defined as more of an art or science. It was a battle of wits and test of language prowess between the teams, at the 21st SGH Annual Scientific Meeting.

The SGH Debate gathered academia and clinicians on and off stage for a discourse on a classic question.   But all could not help returning to the one point that shone clear – a point expressed so well by Sir William Osler generations ago – that the practice of medicine is an art, based on science.

One such audience member said:

“I think in your hearts you must know that the debate between science and art in Medicine really shouldn't be happening, it's a false dichotomy.”

Dr Joshua Hoe of Team Art made light of the actual challenge at hand in his opening.   “I've been in many terrifying debates, but this is the first time that I might end up winning the debate but losing my job. So Prof Tan (Ban Hock, leader of Team Science), whatever you have to say, I respectfully disagree with, and Prof Soo (Khee Chee, leader of Team Art) please don't judge me for what I'm about to say.”

He went on to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Luke (of the Bible), Nicolaus Copernicus and Ben Carson, physicians famous for their artistic achievements outside Medicine, saving the best reveal for last – his personal YouTube channel. “If you ever need a struggling musician for hire, let me know, I'm your guy,” he hawked.

Citing major studies on the impact of false positives for mammography, Dr Hoe underscored the pitfalls of managing patients purely based on statistics.

His opponent Dr Ramesh Wijaya then sought to remind that the basic study of Medicine is scientific in nature.

“Medicine requires you to go through the construct and systematic study that requires final outcomes in evidence to eventually leads to practice.

“Palliative medicine, a commonly cited example when it comes to art and science, is definitely more a science than an art, for its understanding of the pain pathway and analgesia stepladder. It may be more an art to bring comfort to the journey of death but it is still science to practice it.”

At this point, Dr Elizabeth Tan of Team Science upped the ante of her team by stating, “But we need to spark creativity that is the root of scientific research, if not we will be rewriting the famous quote by Robert Frost with: 'It will be two roads diverged in the woods, and I kept on taking the same one.'”

However, as the debaters took turns to highlight, Medicine cannot function without either element and is more than the sum of its parts.   As Associate Professor Tan Ban Hock aptly concluded, “Medicine surely is more than art and science, it has to do with ethics, values, spirituality and religion.”

Professor Soo Khee Chee echoed a similar argument.   He shared, “The debate reveals three fundamental truths of Medicine: Primacy of the patient's interest, closely tied with the patient-doctor relationship, and the importance of interpersonal relationships.   This is especially important in modern Medicine because of the need for multiple teams to help look after the patient.”

As it happened, Prof Soo was himself widely discussed in the debate due to his excellence in surgery, and many likened him to be an artist for his exceptional abilities.

Like many an esteemed doctor, his words had heft from a lifetime of medical practice, and he concluded,

“We cure patients scientifically, but the most important thing that we provide to all of our patients is comfort. And that my friends, comes from the art of living, the art of observing, and ultimately the art of the practice of medicine.”

The SGH Debate took place on 11 April as part of the 21st SGH Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM). It featured moderator Associate Professor Toh Han Chong and two teams of debaters led by Professor Soo Khee Chee and Associate Professor Tan Ban Hock.   Team Science led by Associate Professor Tan won the Debate and Dr Elizabeth Tan from Team Art took home the Best Speaker award.

The judges for the afternoon were Mr Adrian Tan, Partner, Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC; Dr Chia Shi-Lu, Senior Consultant, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, SGH and Professor Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, Department of Medicine, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS.