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Why Poetry Matters in Medicine

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

When uttering the word “poetry” to clinicians, expect some scoffs. In medicine, clinicians tend to think of language in terms of clinical documentation and reading in terms of scientific articles; thus, the pursuit of a poetic practice or education can feel unfounded at best, anathema to scientific thinking at worst. And yet, poetry is so much more than an affected exercise in which one seeks to render a cloud or seascape — it’s a humanistic endeavor that encourages precision, innovation, and, most notably, empathy. 

This National Poetry Month, Doximity spoke to three clinicians steeped in the medium about why they turn to poetry, how they utilize it with their patients, and why, ultimately, it matters in medicine.

Why Clinicians Write and Read Poetry

Why might poetry resonate deeply with clinicians? Norman Rosenthal, MD, a psychiatrist based in Maryland and author of “PoetryRx: How Fifty Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life,” hypothesized that the power of poetry lies in the simplicity and depth of the truths relayed therein. 

“Poems are communicating … powerful experiences of a whole spectrum,” Dr. Rosenthal said. “Listening to people with all their struggles … and then looking deeply into a poem, [I realize] that the truths have been expressed so beautifully and so unbelievably.”

This truth-telling can be healing for readers and writers alike. Earl Stewart, Jr., MD, an internal medicine physician based outside Atlanta and host of the Poetry in Medicine podcast, grew up writing autobiographical poetry. 

“My father struggled with some things as a result of PTSD,” he explained. “And that caused some traumatic experiences for me, and so outside of taking refuge in the church, I took refuge in writing poetry. It was most cathartic for me in those moments where I would sit on our porch and just write.” 

In addition to serving as an emotional outlet, poetry can help clinicians cope with the ongoing issue of burnout. 

“I truly believe that the practice of writing and reading poetry … helps us be more grounded in ourselves,” said David Xiang, a medical student and poet based in Boston. “As caregivers, we are often thrust into roles of service and giving, without requiring anything in return. Over time, this can lead to burnout and increased stress from having to always be present for others. Poetry serves as an excellent release and healing tool for addressing these negative feelings.”

Furthermore, research shows that poetry has healing potential for patients. In a randomized clinical trial on cancer patients experiencing pain, poetry and music led to decreased pain intensity, and poetry alone led to increased hope. Additionally, a study in hospitalized pediatric patients found that engaging in poetry-based reading and writing exercises led to reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. And a qualitative survey of visitors to a poetry website during the pandemic found that poetry eased common mental health symptoms. 

Helping Patients Understand Their Struggles 

Given its myriad health benefits, poetry has found its way into the clinic space for all three clinicians. Dr. Stewart's podcast, for example, features poetry readings that focus on the medical community and the practice of medicine. “It's mostly patients who listen,” he noted. “Some of my own patients tell me they listen.” 

Similarly, Xiang said, “I’ve never prescribed poetry to a patient, but I do sometimes talk about poetry and writing with patients in general.” 

For his part, Dr. Rosenthal has shared poems with patients during visits. He said his patients are particularly drawn to poems that articulate their own struggles; a favorite among his aging patient base is “VII” by Wendell Berry, which is “about the strange process of getting old.” Another is “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy, which his patients describe as something that they return to because it “fills them with wonder and delight.” 

Dr. Rosenthal’s impulse to bring poetry into the clinic space originated years ago, during a conversation with a friend who had experienced a painful loss. Something Dr. Rosenthal said offhand reminded the friend of the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, which the friend then recited in full. 

“And as he came to the end,” Dr. Rosenthal recounted, “I heard his voice getting lighter and happier. And I felt I had seen my own mood shift in a positive direction. And I thought, wow, this can really be something that could make a difference for people.” 

Of course, Dr. Rosenthal is selective in his poetry “prescriptions.” He explained, “I don’t force poetry on anybody when it’s not appropriate or when the person wouldn’t seem to be receptive. But I’ve seen that a lot of people do respond; it’s been very helpful for people.”

Poetry as Crucial for Medical Pedagogy

Poetry in the medical context can also be instructive. For instance, learning to write and think in poetic terms can improve clinicians' communication skills — and EMR notation. 

“Poetry forces us to prioritize brevity and maximize impact with every phrase and image, and I believe we can apply that same thinking to our own clinical documentation, which oftentimes can get overly verbose or protracted,” Xiang said. Poetry has also been shown to enhance clinician-leader interactions; a qualitative survey eliciting internal medicine residents’ perspectives on wellness found that “poetry survey techniques allow medical trainees to provide powerful messaging to leadership.”

In addition, Dr. Stewart noted, “poetry can be utilized to foster empathy.” This component of poetry is all too relevant to medical training: Research has shown that empathy decreases among medical students once they transition out of the preclinical years into the clinical ones. 

Responding to this alarming trend, Dr. Stewart said, “That’s the complete opposite scenario that you want to exist. You want empathy to increase consistently throughout your career, but especially at the moment where you're getting your initial introduction to patient care. And I’m not saying poetry is the only way, but what’s well-documented is that teaching poetry, appreciating poetry, understanding poetry, reading poetry, even writing poetry helps to overcome that significant [empathy dip] that we start to see in patient-facing clinicians.”

Xiang corroborated this finding: “Writing poetry and being immersed in the humanities always reminds me that my work with patients is an honor, as being vulnerable and open with strangers [in the way that patients are asked to be] can be very intimidating.” 

“I believe that writing poetry has helped me become a better medical student, and eventually, a better physician,” he continued. “Poetry encourages us to understand stories and people from every perspective, not just our own, and challenges us to be radical, to utilize outside-the-box thinking, and to imagine possibilities that our realities do not contain.” 

Dr. Rosenthal agreed: “Poems fill me with a sense of hope and joy and insight that I just want to communicate to other people. … It's just a different way of looking. It's a different prism to look through.” 

The Humanistic Impact of Poetry

Ultimately, the greatest gift poetry offers to medicine may be its humanism. “I [reach] for poetry because it … reminds me of my own humanity,” Xiang said. “Poetry allows us to share in the collective consciousness of the world, to cry together about the brokenness we witness, and to also revel in the joy and love we see all around us in the hospital and everyday life.”

Though these clinicians may appreciate poetry more than most, they don’t see the art form as a hobby separable from their medical practice. Rather, the two are very much intertwined. As Xiang put it, “What I see and observe in the hospital directly informs much of my creative work. I see [my poetry and medical paths] developing in tandem with one another.” Attending to one’s art, in other words, can increase attention to one’s science (and vice-versa). Both require sustained interest in humanity and healing; both require precision in language and thought. 

For clinicians looking to deepen their poetry immersion, Dr. Stewart had this piece of advice: “What I encourage them to do is not necessarily become Shakespeare.” Instead, he said, clinicians can begin “one poem at a time,” reading and developing a knowledge base that will increase empathy and patient connection; help alleviate stress and burnout; and serve as a space for catharsis and reflection.

Illustration by Shutterstock

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