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Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

Fiction: A Tonic For Doctors

Column- Recent research says good doctors read textbooks, great doctors read fiction, writes Piyush Jha

books Updated: Oct 03, 2019 16:31 IST
Piyush Jha
Piyush Jha
Hindustan Times
(Photo:Istock)
         

My mother had a recent interaction with a doctor, which left her disconcerted. She felt the doctor wasn’t listening to her and came off as being rather detached and lacking empathy.

In a separate discussion with the renowned sports orthopaedist Dr Mihir Patki, I found that he firmly believed that doctors should empathise with their patient’s personal lives to connect with them on a deeper level to truly heal them.

Building empathy among doctors was emphasied by Sir William Osler who introduced the practice of mandatory medical residency as a means of better understanding the patients. Osler, a prolific author and bibliophile, espoused the study of humanities for medical students. Humanities studies have often been advised for scientists in every field. Osler believed that for doctors it was necessary because the neglect of humanities will make the medical profession lose empathy; a very precious quality for diagnosis. Leading universities like Stanford and Georgetown now prescribe the integration of arts and humanities into the medical studies curriculum.

Specifically, reading fiction books can help doctors in boosting their empathy quotient, according to Dr. Harvey Simon of the Harvard Medical School. In a recently published research, he argued, “Reading fiction can function as a ‘virtual house call’ by introducing medical practitioners to a wide array of personalities and situations before they are encountered in a clinical setting. Literary fiction can enhance clinically important skills such as sensitivity and understanding.”

Yet, many may say that fiction and medicine don’t go hand in hand. Well, bookshops shelves are stacked with fiction books by writers who also practiced medicine: Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, to name some. As medical practitioners, they had close contact with people during their weakest moments. Surely, this contributed to their astute understanding of the human condition and frailties?

Every doctor need not dabble in creating fiction like the aforementioned authors. A recent study in Literature and Medicine journal published by Johns Hopkins University espouses that even certain literary exercises, like rewriting previously published short stories for example, can help “expand doctors’ worldviews and make them more attuned to the dilemmas real patients face”.

Of course, many doctors may be resistant to these ideas. But, if you want better treatment you could surely take the initiative. Gift your doctor your favourite fiction book and remember to prescribe him at least a chapter a day.