Creative Writing Increases Physician Observation Skills and Connection to Patients

Anna Reisman, M.D. Teaching creative writing to residents in an intensive workshop at Yale School of Medicine improved physicians’ view of themselves, their peers and their patients, and also promoted an increased interest in writing and the residency program, according to a study in the October issue of Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Anna Reisman, M.D.

Teaching creative writing to residents in an intensive workshop at Yale School of Medicine improved physicians’ view of themselves, their peers and their patients, and also promoted an increased interest in writing and the residency program, according to a study in the October issue of Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Led by Anna Reisman, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine, the researchers conducted the study in part to offset some of the negative effects contemporary medical education can have on resident physicians, including disillusionment, lack of emotional engagement with the mission of medicine and a consequential lack of commitment to patients as persons.

“We wanted to help residents become better physicians by reflecting on their experiences and on what gives meaning to work and life,” said Reisman. “The overall aim of the Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop is to introduce a way for residency programs to help trainees address conflicting emotions about their professional roles and to cultivate a curiosity about their patients’ lives beyond their diseases.”

A two-day intensive workshop for 15 residents was conducted by physician-writer Abraham Verghese. The Yale workshop focused less on content and more on the quality of the writing itself. The residents were taught to express emotion effectively through language, to develop characters and lay out plots and to avoid common mistakes that break the reader’s engagement with the writing. Writing themes included discontent, feelings of impotence as physicians and the healing power of compassion.

“Residents who learn to craft narratives into polished and nuanced pieces have the unique opportunity both to understand their own experiences more deeply and to imagine more fully the experiences of those they write about,” said Reisman. “Focusing on the craft of writing provides a means of increasing one’s powers of observation and improving one’s understanding of both self and others.”

Response from the focus group participants showed that writing was a creative outlet from the rigors of medicine and that the workshop created a sense of community among participants and enhanced both self-awareness and awareness of patients’ lives. There was also an increased interest in writing and in the residency program.

One focus group participant said, “I didn’t realize some of the emotions I was feeling until writing it down.”

Reisman will co-direct the 4th Annual Writers’ Workshop at Yale on November 10 and 11. This year’s workshop will include 12 to 14 residents from the Departments of Internal Medicine, Psychiatry and Pediatrics. The workshop will be led by well-known surgeon-writer Richard Selzer.

Reisman’s co-authors on the study were Helena Hansen, M.D. and Asghar Rastegar, M.D.

Citation: Journal of General Internal Medicine: Vol. 21, 10 (October 2006)

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222