Where We Live: Putting Humanity Back Into Medicine

Can the Humanities make a better doctor?

Brittany G, Creative Commons
Where We Live: Medical Humanities
Download Audio
Audio Playlist
Where We Live: Medical Humanities

Doctors get years of training in medicine, but what’s often left out is humanity.

The relationship between doctor and patient is among the most important many of us will have in their lives, yet it’s becoming increasingly depersonalized thanks to overwhelming patient loads.

But there’s a growing field of study - and practice - that aims at putting the humanities back into doctor’s training...to better treat the humans they serve.

Today we’ll look at “Narrative Medicine” and the “Medical Humanities” and how programs at Yale and Columbia are training physicians in poetry as well as anatomy.

Is compassion the missing link in better health outcomes?  Can a more well rounded doctor provide more compassionate treatment?  



The importance of story (in all forms)

These are all great points, and the discussion about humanities (and narrative, particularly) in medicine is an important one. As physicians-in-training, my classmates and I all have internal stories to which we hope to remain true. The "socialization" or professionalization of medical students revises or edits that story -- sometimes in drastic and disheartening ways, sometimes in empowering and fulfilling ways.

During my clinical year (the 3rd and most intense year of medical school), a good friend and classmate told me how he remained motivated by seeing himself as a "Padawan" -- a Jedi Knight in training. He adopted a frame of mind which generally saw medical training as a noble but challenging apprenticeship. And perhaps this internal story -- as silly or incongruous as it may sound to others -- helped him during a trying year.

Patients too have their own stories to honor. It is often these stories which give meaning to their suffering. Sometimes the stories they have for themselves are, instead, destructive and lead to de-motivating and "helpless" frames of mind. In either case, I think the medical profession would do well to be more aware and "receptive," as Rita Charon puts it, of patients' stories as well as their own.

Finally, as many seasoned physicians can attest to, simply providing our patients with "information" regarding the gravity of their disease can have surprisingly little effect in their health behaviors. Perhaps it is in cases like these where we need to attend seriously to the patient's narrative and sense of self.

Aesthetic & Narrative Ways of Knowing in Nursing

As a professor of English appointed to the UConn School of Nursing, I observe the ways that aesthetic and narrative ways of knowing have been integrated into the nursing profession and nursing curriculum for many years. The notion that creative or artistic expression, including narrative, is a way of knowing, was schematized by Barbara Carper in the late 1970s and further refined by Peggy Chinn and Maeona Kramer, as well as in a collection of essays published by the National League for Nursing in the mid-1990s by Chinn and Jean Watson, entitled _Art and Aesthetics in Nursing_. In the UConn School of Nursing, nursing students in their senior year are required to take a course called Nursing Aesthetics, which focuses on the art of nursing.

Play, the Arts, Poetry and your Health

Poetry, writing, storytelling are all ways to play that can be part of any holistic health program in hospitals, clinics, rural or urban health care setting. Reading and writing poetry, journaling, telling the stories of our lives (honoring our dis-ease and our healing from within and with the support of others) I'm so happy to hear of Yale's programs that mirrors other play2bhealthy, arts & health, writing & health programs. "Taking time off", playing in ways that fit our essential nature, helps us to re-set as caregivers and as patients. When I was treated for my breast cancer with surgery and radiation treatment my imagination, dreams, and ways to play fed me in ways that the medical world's protocols did not offer. These treatments were imposed upon me, radiation machines and loud noises, chatty personnel who ignored my need for meditation and story--eventually I was able to translate what I needed to medical staff who ignored what I needed and as a result the radiation program changed in ways that acknowledged the need for revision and the addition of humanistic treatments.
What's next? Health care and humanistic care is the issue--not insurance companies, the economy, or not enough time or money.