A spoonful of literature helps the medicine go down

Medical education

In his first year of medical school, Daniel Marchalik, M.D., a literature major in his undergrad years, found Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” had been displaced by Netter’s “Atlas of Human Anatomy.”

Marchalik missed reading those humanizing novels that put him in touch with the thoughts and feelings that many busy, medical students come to ignore, he writes in a blog post on The New York Times. But it was that love of books that inspired Marchalik, a urologist and surgical resident based in the District of Columbia, to develop and head the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Medical school students that opt for the track get to read a series of books each semester in their literature class that have nothing to do with medicine, but lots to do with life. They read books with poetic titles such as “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” and “All the Light We Cannot See.” In monthly meetings, the students come together to discuss the various works of fiction in a ‘book club’ format.

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The goal of the course is to “foster habits of reflection” over four years of medical school, Marchalik wrote in the Times. It was that desire for reflection that inspired him to form a book club that later grew into that official course.

“Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work,” he wrote.

The course is not so surprising given the fact that doctors have been using literature and art to sort out complex human emotions and questions that often confront them in their profession. So many physicians and healthcare professionals turn to creative writing to cope with the emotional burden of their work, that it has become its own genre, with its own literary journals and prizes

Art also has a role to play in physician wellness. Concerned about physician burnout and the high rate of suicide within the profession, Stanford University is using the arts, including a writer’s group and literature discussion series, to help its physicians communicate about their work and emotions.

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