The Creative Side of Medicine

One doctor's limitless energy has guided him through looking at health creatively in order to bring changes to the industry and how medicine is taught.

When Frederick Southwick, MD, says that he “loves the creative side of medicine,” he’s not simply making an analogy to the fields of music and art. To Southwick, medicine is truly creative — and exciting.

“Artists are creative, writers are creative — anyone who comes up with not necessarily new ideas but brings together ideas in a new way,” Southwick explains. “And the hope is that these new ideas in biomedical research and creating systems of care will improve the health of all people. So, the end goal is very exciting.”

No novice

Southwick’s energy and enthusiasm don’t come from youth. The project manager for Quality and Safety Pilot Programs for the University of Florida & Shands Healthcare System, and tenured professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, recently turned 66. A pioneer in the field of infectious diseases and an NIH funded investigator for more than 30 years, Southwick says his high energy level has been built into his genetics.

“Each of us is given a certain amount of energy,” he explains. “My parents told me that I have the energy of any other two people. For whatever reason, I like to push to the limit.”

Southwick has channeled that energy into many projects. He has developed new methods for teaching medical students, designed new systems for improving patient care, and is about to release his third book—Critically Ill: A 5-Point Plan to Cure Healthcare Delivery—which will be released in April. When asked why he wrote the book, Southwick turns melancholy.

“Having been on the front lines of care for 30 years, I’ve been really saddened to see, from my viewpoint, that life is becoming more hectic for physicians and all caregivers as a consequence of this increasing workload,” Southwick says. “They are making more mistakes. Many physicians are not enjoying their jobs any more. Because they’re so busy, they really are not paying attention to nurses or communicating with them.”

Six years ago, Southwick heard about improvement in the quality of cars at Toyota, and started thinking about how those principles could be applied in health care. Then he realized the health care industry had the opportunity for new and creative thoughts, applying the principles that are taken for granted in the business world.

Southwick originally intended to write the book for all health care constituents, but was asked by the publisher to focus instead on the key constituency that would be most receptive to the message, and where the greatest impact could be felt. He decided that would be nurses.

“Unlike physicians, [nurses] have no conflict of interest,” Southwick explains. “They don’t bill for services, they don’t bill to do any procedure, and they don’t bill for any expensive diagnostic tests. They work 8- to 12-hour shifts with their patients, and they’re with the patients all day. Nurses understand the patients and the patient’s needs far better than any other group of caregivers."

Keeping it simple

Southwick’s literary focus on the nursing profession doesn’t mean he’s ignoring physicians. He’s written a series of guiding principles for the teaching of infectious diseases and microbiology, and says the key to teaching medical students today is to keep things simple and focus on teamwork.

“[Medical school teachers] have started creating these little outlines and are having the students memorize these facts,” Southwick explains. “Now the problem with memorization is that it’s there today, and it’s usually gone tomorrow. So, it’s almost, in my view, a useless exercise.”

Southwick’s focus has been on learning actively by emphasizing understanding principles. Students can then better manage the information they learn. The doctor has also focused on teaching teamwork, getting students to think and process information rather than simply memorize.

“I think everybody in the learning field is realizing that just memorizing more biomedical facts is not going to work,” he says. “And one of the big problems is we know that within three to four years, half of what we have taught has changed. So, we need to keep an open mind.”

Limitless energy

As if writing books and devising new mechanisms for teaching medical students wasn’t enough, Southwick still finds the time and the energy to maintain a very active lifestyle.

In college he earned varsity letters in football, wrestling and lacrosse, but soon after graduating realized that he needed to focus on more non-contact sports. He took up competitive rowing, marathon canoeing, and bicycling, and has since competed in the masters nationals in rowing, winning medals as a single rower and in 2-, 4- and 8-man boats. Midway through his 60s, he frequently rides with a bicycle club on 25- to 60-mile trips and recently took up the new sport of paddle surging.

“What I find is that after exercising my mental acuity is really sharp,” Southwick says. “And the other thing [exercising] does is you get endorphins; you feel so positive about what you’re doing. If I don’t work out, I feel more tired, and don’t have the same energy. So, it has really helped me. I’m still going gangbusters, and I hope I can keep it up for a long time to come.”

Ed Rabinowitz recently wrote

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a book about one family’s courageous battle against time and glioblastoma brain cancer.

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