Museum Blog

The Hands Have It: The Importance of Manual Dexterity in Medicine

Published by Sandy Bechtolsheim

“Handy”, original watercolor, 2020, by Sandy Bechtolsheim, Artist

When we think about the qualities or traits that a surgeon needs to have to be successful, words such as intelligence, courageousness, ability to focus, adaptability, stamina, and analytical thinking come to mind. But no matter how intelligent, courageous, focused, adaptable, strong, or analytical a surgeon may be, they would be nothing without the proper use of their hands. Their hands are what allow them to apply everything that they know intellectually and intuitively to their trade. Their hands are the first tool that they use in every surgery they perform, and as such their fine motor skills/manual dexterity must be impeccable. Could you imagine a surgeon trying to do ophthalmic surgery, neurosurgery or a c-section without nimble fingers? The results could be catastrophic for the patient.

Painting depicting the first successful cesarean section in Latin America in 1844. By Enrique Grau. xx1995.814.3 International Museum of Surgical Science Collection.

With this in mind, there has been a growing concern amongst the surgical community over the last decade that medical students are showing a marked decline in the fine motor skills that are required to complete the most basic clinical procedures (Sammy, 2019). In a May 30, 2019  article in the New York Times entitled, “Your Surgeon’s Childhood Hobbies May Affect Your Health,” Chicago transplant surgeon Dr. Maria Siemionow stated, “They (medical students) are already in their residencies and yet, they don’t have a good feeling about their hands and you observe them getting frustrated, they are impatient, there is blood all over.” Dr. Siemionow is not alone in her observations. Dr. Roger Kneebone, Imperial College London professor of surgical education, and Dr. Robert Spetzler, former president and chief executive officer of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona made similar statements in a November 2019 MDLinx article entitled, “Hobbies That Can Make You A Better Doctor.” Dr Kneebone stated, “It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things – cutting things out, making things – that is no longer the case.”  Dr. Spetzler, who said that he developed dexterity as a child by playing the piano, stated, “The sooner you begin doing a physical, repetitive task, the more ingrained and instinctive that motor skill becomes” (Advisory Board, 2019).

The aforementioned physicians attribute the lack of properly developed manual dexterity to children no longer being taught things that develop their fine motor skills. Many kids no longer learn to play instruments. They do not knit, crochet, or use cursive writing. They do not do art, craft projects, or woodworking (Ophthamology360, 2020). Education systems tend to focus students strictly on book studies instead of developing a child’s total personality. As such, many medical students have book smarts, but are all thumbs because they have grown up using keyboards, cells phones and video games more than anything else (Advisory Board, 2019).

As with many things in life, it is better if manual dexterity is developed at a young age (Sammy, 2019). So if any parents out there are reading this blog….and you think that your child may grow up to be interested in the medical field, get them involved in activities that will require the use of their hands. If you are a young student or high schooler, or even a college student, it is never too late to take up a hobby that will help to develop your manual dexterity.  The more you practice with your hands, the better you will become at using them.

YouTube video from CBS Evening News of 11-year-old Jonah Larson, crochet enthusiast.

Even if you or your children do not go into the medical field, a variety of other benefits will have been gained from engaging in activities that develop fine motor skills. Let me quote Tristam Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum who says, “Creativity is not just for artists. Subjects like design and technology, music, art and drama are vitally important for children to develop imagination and resourcefulness, resilience, problem-solving, team working and technical skills. These are the skills which will enable young people to navigate the changing workplace of the future and stay ahead of the robots, not exam grades” (Coughlan, 2018).

Works Cited:

Advisory Board. “Why aren’t today’s surgeons as good with their hands? (Hint: Video games may be to blame).” 3 June, 2019.

CBS Evening News. “11 year old crochet wiz now giving his own lessons.” 1 February, 2019. YouTube.

Coughlan, S. “Surgery students ‘losing dexterity to stitch patients’.” BBC, 30 October, 2018,

Murphy, K. “Your surgeons childhood hobbies may affect your health.” 30 May, 2019. New York Times.

Ophthamology 360. “Dexterity and the Business at Hand.” 17 January, 2020.

Sammy, M. “Hobbies that can make you a better doctor.” 7 November, 2019.

Sandy Bechtolsheim is a graduate student enrolled in the Museum Studies Program at Northern Illinois University. She is also a Registered Nurse, watercolor artist, and current volunteer at the International Museum of Surgical Science.