The Power of Medical Storytelling
Research reveals that when patients engage in expressive writing while living with an illness, it can lead to improved physical and psychological health outcomes. Furthermore, when patients share these stories with their families and medical professionals, this process can increase empathy with and understanding by their caregivers.
Not only can the practice of writing and sharing help to alleviate stress for patients, but accumulating evidence indicates that doctors, nurses, social workers and other medical professionals benefit by writing and sharing their clinical experiences with colleagues as well.
This concept has attracted the attention of leadership in major hospitals. In a recent communication, Peter Slavin, MD, President of Mass General Hospital, highlights MGH’s embrace of the practice of expressive writing by medical professionals. Here is an excerpt from that newsletter.
Words that Matter: Enhancing Care through Writing
“At its core, medicine is about stories. Every day an ongoing narrative of humanity, health and hope plays out at hospitals like the MGH. Stories are everywhere – heartwarming, heartbreaking, funny and poignant moments that offer valuable insights and meaningful lessons. Recognizing the value of storytelling, the Division of General Internal Medicine (DGIM) four years ago launched the Writer in Residence initiative to encourage staff to use writing, reading and discussion to enhance practice, build a sense of team, sharpen diagnostic skills, reflect upon difficult issues, increase empathy, reduce burnout and foster diversity and inclusion.
“Suzanne Koven, MD, MFA, a primary care physician in the Bulfinch Medical Group and a gifted writer whose work has appeared in numerous media outlets and medical journals, serves as the DGIM’s writer in residence. The program has been extraordinarily successful, offering regular writing workshops, providing individual mentorship for those interested in writing professionally and personally, and hosting discussions of essays, poems and literature to examine complex and difficult issues. … These programs have demonstrated how writing and literature can foster a deeper insight, provide perspective, and serve as a mirror through which we can view our work and ourselves.”
Other hospitals that offer writing programs for medical professionals include the Columbia University Medical Center, the Cleveland Clinic, and the NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital.
As medical professionals are encouraged to engage in expressive writing, we can hope that this will lead to a more empathic awareness of patients’ conditions, build stronger medical caregiver communities through the sharing of these narratives, and reduce stress as they reflect upon their medical journeys.