Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care

In order to better serve their patients, health care professionals in Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country are participating in a ground-breaking new program: every week, doctors, nurses, receptionists, and lab technicians sit together and discuss books.

The Maine Humanities Council launched Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care in 1997 with a grant from the NEH. It is a hospital-based, scholar-led humanities reading and discussion program that encourages health care professionals to approach their work from a different perspective. Through a carefully selected anthology of short stories, poems, and plays, hospital workers reflect on their role as caregivers to the men and women who serve in the armed forces.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Where Literature & Medicine is implemented, health care professionals and patients attest to vastly improved relationships. After reading Echoes of War: A Literature & Medicine Anthology one participant reported: “Our discussions have significantly reordered how I think about medicine. I live with the experience of the protagonist in one of William Carlos Williams’ ‘Doctor Stories,’ a physician who acted without listening. I do not want to be like him. I am learning to sit quietly and listen.”

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

Courtesy of Literature & Medicine.

 A survey conducted in 2008 found that participants between 2005 and 2008 reported a staggering 79% increase in empathy for patients, and a 62% increase in job satisfaction. Though the reading selections focus on issues prevalent in Veterans Affairs hospitals, the Main Humanities Council believes any group of health care professionals can benefit from the readings, or from discussing a similar anthology of their own choosing.

When the worlds of literature and science are linked, the human body and all of its physical and emotional wounds can be better understood. The Literature & Medicine program is one way of linking these often disparate fields at a low cost.

So far, Literature & Medicine is the only program in which hospital personnel on a state and national level read literary works to help them think more carefully about their jobs. More than 2,000 health care professionals from hospitals in 25 states have participated since its creation. Every year, new state humanities councils partner with the program, proving that the relatively simple concept of reading and talking in communion has the power to transform the experience of working in a veterans’ hospital.

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