Creative Writing as a Medical Instrument
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Listening and responding to patients’ stories for over 20 years as an emergency physician has strengthened my appreciation for the many ways that the skills and principles drawn from writing fiction double as necessary clinical skills. The best medicine doesn’t work on the wrong story, and the stories patients tell sometimes feel like first drafts—vital and fragile works-in-progress. Increasingly complex health challenges compounded by social, financial, and psychological burdens make for stories that are difficult to articulate and comprehend. In this essay, I argue that healthcare providers need to think like creative writers and the skills and sensitivities necessary to story construction deserve a vital space in medical education. A thorough understanding of story anatomy and the imaginative flexibility to work stories into open spaces serve as antidotes to the reductive nature of clinical decision making and have implications as patient safety and risk management strategies. The examples that I have selected demonstrate how thinking like a creative writer functions at the bedside, providing tools for clinical excellence and empathy. This approach asks that we re-imagine the importance of story in clinical care: from a vehicle to a diagnosis to its place as a critical destination.
KeywordsWriting Creative writing Medical education Medical humanities Reflective writing Emergency medicine Narrative competence
This work wasn’t possible without the support of Dr. Brian Zink, Chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine, Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and an inspiring group of emergency medicine research colleagues who funded part of my project with a Mid-Career Academic Development Award. My deepest appreciation to Prof. Michael Steinberg, Director, Cogut Center for the Humanities at Brown University for generously providing an emergency physician a home as a Faculty Fellow at the Cogut Center in Spring, 2011. I’m indebted to my students at Alpert Medical School, Brown University, and Rhode Island School of Design, and to the Cogut Center fellows, who stretched my brain into uncomfortably thrilling positions. Last, but not least, I must express boundless gratitude to the staff of the Cogut Center for their skill, friendship, and chocolate.
Many thanks to Erin Gentry Lamb, PhD and Michael Blackie, PhD for their time and editorial expertise.
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