Imagine doctors, nurses, receptionists, trustees, administrators, lab techs, PAs, with books in hand, sitting in a hospital conference room, talking about what they have read and reflecting together on what it means to them—as people, and as professionals engaged in the enterprise of health care. Thousands of health care professionals working in hospitals in 26 states have done just this since 1997, when MHC created Literature & Medicine, with more participating every year.
And what difference does it make? A hospital vice-president describes it this way: “This relatively simple concept of bringing people together to share in art has made a lasting and transformational impact to our small rural hospital and surrounding communities. To quote Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Indeed–in our increasingly multicultural world, health care professionals can no longer rely on what they know from their own lives to understand their patients, who may be of different religious, socio-economic, or cultural backgrounds. Literature, however, offers vicarious experiences of worlds outside that of the reader, supplying full-bodied accounts of illness, death, and human relationships in all places and among all peoples. This is why the field of medical humanities is growing nationally, and why the integration of literature into medical education is becoming commonplace.
Literature & Medicine encourages participants to connect the worlds of science and lived experience, giving them the opportunity to reflect on their professional roles and relationships through reading plays, short stories, poetry, fiction and personal narratives in a setting where they can share their reflections with colleagues. It has a significant effect on the way participants understand their work, and their relationships with patients and with each other. It is also an innovative and cost-effective way to improve patient care, as observed by a hospital administrator: “The reflection and conversation that takes place in the process greatly enhances the level of cooperation, collaboration and esprit de corps within our hospital family and our community at large. This impetus in turn greatly improves the quality of care we provide to our patients and their families.”