Medicine can seem a little bit like magic when what looks impossible becomes possible. Dr. Michael Pitt takes that challenge literally.
A pediatric hospitalist at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, Pitt performs magic tricks for his young patients to comfort them, build rapport and motivate them to hit milestones.
In return, he teaches them a few tricks of their own.
"You hear a lot about the art of medicine, and what I've learned is that the art of medicine is a performance art," said Pitt, who also is a U associate professor of pediatrics.
"Actually knowing how to use the skills that magicians use and how to interact with an audience is really the height, the apex of that art of medicine, especially with kids."
Sometimes Pitt uses a magic trick as part of the child's exam to ease anxiety or build rapport. For example, he might use misdirection, such as bringing out squeaky toys to distract patients while completing examinations or getting them to think about something that would make them less nervous.
"If we're looking at a kid's ear, we might use misdirection to make noise or say we're looking for a bird in there," Pitt said.
Magicians often lead their audience members to make a choice necessary to complete a trick, such as picking a certain card from a deck, while making it seem like a free choice. Doctors can do the same thing, Pitt said, such as offering kids the choice of which ear a doctor will look in first.
Pitt, who grew up in Florida, became interested in magic at 8 years old while on a cruise with his family. He joined a talent show and learned a card trick from his dad for his performance. At 12, he used money he earned from making magic to buy his sister a car.
He continued to perform magic shows throughout college. Through workshops and conferences, he's taught thousands of physicians to think like magicians.
Pitt is joined by other doctor-magicians, including Dr. Bob Baker of Long Island, N.Y., who has performed on the NBC reality show "America's Got Talent" and written a book on the performance of medicine.
That can mean playing a character of your best doctor self, similar to how a performer might come out on a stage, said Baker, now retired from a career as an internist and gastroenterologist.
"They've got a smile that says to the audience, 'I'm really glad to be here. I'm glad to be here with you,' " Baker said. "You can watch any entertainer, any good entertainer, they'll do that."
In a clinic or hospital setting, Baker recommends that doctors channel the same sentiment, beginning with "just standing outside the door for a moment. Think for a second about how much you like the patient, how much you want to serve that patient," Baker said.
"And that good feeling just suffuses you and you walk in that room and that natural smile just comes out. And bingo, you've connected with the patient."
Pitt also uses magic to help physicians see their work in new ways, such as reducing jargon. Pitt will show physicians a magic trick and then explain how he did it in complicated, magician jargon.
"And so this really is a moment for people to recognize that we can be the smartest people and doctors in the world, but if we're not communicating with our patients in a way that's understood, we can't blame them for not following the plan," Pitt said.
"That's our fault."
Friend and fellow pediatrician Dr. Glenn Rosenbluth, who works at the University of California, San Francisco, said Pitt "is one of the most creative and talented people I know."
"He's able to bring skills from different areas together in really special ways that have a positive impact. He finds these connections that other people don't see and really uses it to help advance our field," Rosenbluth said.
Getting physicians to think like magicians, whether they ever do a magic trick, is Pitt's focus now.
"My favorite sentence is when nurses say, 'Oh my gosh, the family in room so-and-so is really upset' or 'The kid just won't connect with anybody,' " Pitt said.
"I love that challenge because I kind of have, literally, an ace up the sleeve."
Imani Cruzen is a Twin Cities freelance writer.