Sunday, November 13, 2011


My son plays his violin. He practices every day. He attends group and private lessons multiple times a week. Occasionally he learns new pieces. Mostly he plays the same music over and over again. There are days when the music seems to glide sweetly from his hands with little effort. There are also days when screeching mangled notes seem more the norm.

It's a tiring process. Day after day and week after week, he struggles. He concentrates on his posture and fingering. He battles to hold the instrument in just the right manner. His fingers bend and contort. His hands cramp. His progress is measured in small increments.

And if he is lucky and persistent, he will improve. His practice will pay off. His notes will be more melodic and pleasing to the ear. He will graduate from one set of pieces and move to the next. The complexity and pace will increase.

Each time he studies a new composition, he will need extra hours of training. His arms will learn the exact twists and turns. He will repeat over and over until his mind no longer thinks of each separate movement, but learns to play as a whole.

But the violin is knowable. While there are some minor differences to each instrument, he will expect roughly the same sound from any violin he picks up. There are a finite number of sounds and notes to learn.

After countless years and thousands of hours of practice, he will approach mastery. Likely this will take decades of both persistence and luck. It is definitely possible. There are no short cuts. Some will reach mastery faster than others. Some will not reach it at all. But every one will have to put in the appropriate time.


I don't understand how we think we can short circuit medical education. Under the rubric of reform we are undermining our training programs.

Residents are being told that they must work shorter shifts and take call less often. As they finish their programs, they are entering their profession with less accrued experience. Their knowledge base is lacking and they learn to consult often, order more tests, and refer to the emergency room.

Primary care physicians are being replaced with nurse practitioners and physicians assistants without requiring the same requisite hours of training. While basic care is surviving, the art of the differential diagnosis and the treatment of the complex patient is being punted to specialists.

Yet my son continues to practice. In order to obtain mastery, he will be expected to study more them most residents and medical students, more then nurse practitioners and physician assistants. And he will learn this tiny instrument. With its four strings and single bow. With its countable number of pieces that move in finite and measurable ways.

No one would expect him to reach his goal without putting in the appropriate time.

Why don't we expect the same out of our medical professionals?

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