Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care is unique among programs serving health care professionals. In hospitals or other health care facility settings, it brings together people with very diverse roles within the world of medicine, in a setting where everyone is on equal footing, to discuss a reading that has resonance for their work. What began in 1997 as an experiment by the Maine Humanities Council has proved to be an amazing success. Literature & Medicine has helped improve communication between colleagues, as well as between professionals and patients. It has also markedly increased job satisfaction among participants. Reading about other kinds of people in other kinds of places, especially when paired with spirited discussion, broadens perspectives, increases empathy and understanding of difference, and fosters greater appreciation of the crucial importance of the human dimension of patient care.
Christine diPretoro works at the Gouldsboro Rehabilitation Clinic of the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital as a speech and language pathologist. She is also that hospital’s contact for Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care. The hospital, located in Ellsworth, was one of the earliest to participate in Literature & Medicine, drawing physicians, nurses, technicians, therapists, administrative staff, and even trustees to its monthly discussion group. This group has helped to bring together people at the 500-employee hospital who, due to their job responsibilities, clinic site, or office work environments, may never have otherwise met one another. This relationship building is one of the hallmarks of the program, which, in Ellsworth, “has given us a chance to simply get to know each other and build relationships we might not have had otherwise,” Christine said. “It makes the process of coordinating patient care with these other providers a lot more efficient and comfortable.”
Like other Council programs, Literature & Medicine seeks to use fiction and nonfiction to help its participants grow professionally, in this instance improving communication between colleagues and between providers and their patients. It does this through promoting discussion of serious and diverse issues that link to the kinds of things health care professionals deal with on a daily basis.
“Whether we read something classic, like Frankenstein, or ‘The Book of Job,’ or something about the genetics of Huntington’s disease, or cancer, the broader issues the texts bring up are remarkably similar: Medical ethics, the impact of public health policy, cultural differences and the universal aspects of illness and suffering, grief, relationships, hope, coping and recovery. On the surface, reading about the plague in medieval Europe might seem like a dry exercise in history, until one starts listening to news reports about SARS and bird flu.”
No one program can radically alter the health care environment, but Literature & Medicine has done much to foster positive change. Among its participants, it increases not only job satisfaction but communication and a further understanding of how members of the health care community can most effectively work together.
“The great lesson of Literature and Medicine,” Christine said, “is learning to recognize and respect other people’s perspectives. Sometimes the perspective we can’t wrap our heads around belongs to a character in the text, and sometimes it’s one of our peers. We all have moments in a group when we can’t figure out how twenty-five people—people we might assume are like-minded—interpret one book so differently. It’s the discussion process that helps us examine our own experiences and beliefs to realize how those filters shape how we approach our work.”