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Medicine is first and foremost a hard science. Laboratory research, measurable data, and the search for objective truths are what makes treatments actually work. Scientists experiment to develop drugs and other treatments that keep folks alive and well. Patients would not be able to trust their doctors and nurses if medicine were based on hunches and gut feelings. Doctors and nurses are scientists and technicians, and they need to get things right.
There’s a problem, though. Medicine treats people. And people are complicated. When medicine ignores the human element, things go haywire. Patients get confused. They get hurt. They get angry. Doctors and nurses need to be able to communicate their messages effectively if patients are going to be able to take care of themselves.
Over the past two decades, a growing movement has been calling for the medical fields to take some hints from their dreamy distant relatives over in the humanities. This movement (which includes doctors like Atul Gawande and Rita Charon, as well as writers like Eula Biss and the late Susan Sontag) aims to improve patient care by focusing on the things medical professionals don’t always learn in school: empathy, clear writing, ethical literacy, and more. As hospitals become more and more automated, this need becomes even greater. Our increasingly digital health care already leaves patients feeling alienated, and medical professionals need to work hard to bridge that gap.
What’s in it for the Patient?
Does it seem far-fetched to suggest that surgeons brush up on their Shakespeare? You might be surprised. Physicians who study the arts in addition to science have better understanding of patient-centered care. These doctors can relate to their patients better and thus tailor their messages to suit the situation. Patients often need to complete complex self- care plans after they get out of the hospital; doctors who understand their patients’ points of view will be better equipped to communicate those plans in plain language. Patients who understand a doctor’s orders will obviously have an easier time following doctor’s orders.
One common approach to closing communication gaps is called “narrative medicine.” Narrative medicine attempts to teach medics how to “treat the whole person.” A patient suffering from a terminal, chronic disease is more than a bunch of data points on a chart; a patient is a human being going through an intense and confusing experience. According to narrative approaches to medicine, physicians who look beyond the test results in order to get a more complete picture of the patient will do a better job of educating and treating the patient.
What’s in it for the Medical Professionals?
So what exactly can fiction and pretty pictures do for a hard working doctor? In addition to improved patient care, medics can get a lot out of creative endeavors. Doctors report that writing and reading provide stress relief, greater closeness to their patients and coworkers, and profound philosophical understanding of their lives. Doctors and nurses have ethically complex and emotionally taxing careers; art and literature give them a powerful tool for exploring their personal issues in a safe environment. In short, the humanities can provide medics with that ever-elusive but essential thing: meaning.