GP Life: A doctor who is combining art and medicine

Dr Katy Shorttle, a GP trainee in Cambridge, is also studying for an MA in illustration and book arts. She explains how her career in medicine has inspired her art and how art has influenced her as a doctor.

Have you always been interested in art?

I've always enjoyed the 'doing' aspect of art and from a young age found drawing and painting immersive and satisfying. It wasn't until the last five years that I developed an appreciation for the huge communicative power of art, particularly conceptual art. My art gained a new focus from this point as I began to use drawing to reflect on both my medical training and patients' experiences.

Why did you decide on a career in medicine?

At the time of choosing an initial career path I knew I would always continue to create artwork in my spare time, whilst a career in medicine had always appealed to me because of its opportunity to use a varied skill set for a good cause.

I have questioned the decision I made, as I expect many medical trainees do given the gruelling nature of the degree, but do not regret my choice, as I have found my medical training immensely rewarding. The personal lessons I have learnt have humbled and moved me and opened my eyes to the world around me.

The challenge and the privilege of being a GP arises from the degree and variety of patient contact. The ability to provide patient-centred care within an ever-changing society requires excellent communication skills, creativity and flexibility of thinking, which I enjoy.

Why did you decide to study art at the same time as medicine?

During a medical elective in Cape Town in 2010 I drew a daily visual diary illustrating the social, personal and health effects of HIV and tuberculosis on people's lives. Realising the potential for this format to inspire others and provide a tool for my personal reflection I continued regular medical drawings, uploading the results on a blog entitled 'Drawing a Diagnosis'.

The more time I spent working as a doctor, the more I wanted to create art work to communicate what I was experiencing, particularly issues which are often underrepresented in media such as the experiences of mental health problems and old age. Art has been a natural vehicle for this, and studying an MA has taught me how art research can be effectively carried out, with emphasis on communication of an intended message.

How do you balance your GP training with your art MA?

The reflective nature of my GP training and MA creative projects have complemented each other very well. I have studied part-time for my MA and trained less than full time as a GP trainee, so have had the privilege of being able to continue both concurrently, although I have had to be self-disciplined and focused in both pursuits.

How has being a doctor informed your work as an artist?

My medical experiences have had a huge impact on my art work, and I have found that the often abstract nature of many issues surrounding health care such as experiences of mental illnesses and the concepts of incubation and infection can be better communicated through art than in standard written resources.

The year that I just completed, working in Medicine for the Elderly, which inspired me to explore people's experiences of frailty through art.

How does having an outlet like art help you as a doctor?

Art helps me in so many different ways, both personally and professionally. It allows me to debrief and reflect following challenging medical experiences, and the skills that I learn from that process, for example, empathy and understanding, help me to be a better doctor. It allows me to grow personally from my experiences by distilling what I have experienced into an understandable format.

Through my MA I have also learned how to carry out art research more effectively which has allowed me to explore issues which are less directly related to my medical practice, such as the Ebola crisis. I hope that my artwork can benefit patients and healthcare professionals by providing new, engaging material which both challenges and furthers people's understanding of health, disease and medicine.

Can you explain your work that featured in a recent exhibition?

My final Master's project was recently displayed in the Ruskin Gallery as part of the MA degree show entitled 'Perceptions'.

This project started as a quest to understand the experience of frailty, and evolved into a series of sculptures and case studies. After highlighting key issues surrounding frailty and elderly medicine, for example decreasing mobility or shortness of breath, I started breaking, modifying and mending 20th century teacups I picked up in charity shops.

What emerged was a series of different teacups, each one a representation of a person's experience of old age or frailty. The adaptation or mending process represented their personal struggle or resilience dealing with a key frailty issue.

Each cup had an accompanying case study illustrating a key frailty issue. The project is available for view at

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