On the importance of literature to the field of medicine

by Jiyoung Kim

Throughout most of my early education, I believed that science and literature were two mutually exclusive fields.  If a student was gifted in one field, it was usually at the expensive of the other.  In high school, I found that as I stepped through the door marked “science,” the door to the humanities and any literary field slammed shut.  By then I had accepted this strict dichotomy as truth; the moment one specializes in a certain field of study, all the other fields back out of reach.  However, my college experience challenged that perspective through its core curriculum that required courses in both humanities and sciences.  Some of my peers complained, suggesting science majors be exempt from taking humanities courses, but I fully embraced all of those requirements, and more.  Words are how people communicate, and so to exclude literature from any field is impossible.  With medicine, this is so much more the case.  Doctors must use words to explain the course of treatment to their patients and to communicate with their colleagues through case presentations and write ups.  They must be able to express their deepest sympathies, to share in a patient’s private confessions, and to comfort those who are sick and their grieving families.  And they must use language to teach future generations.  Thus, over the past few years, I happily unlearned this idea that engineers cannot write, and that writers cannot understand science.  Not only had I seen so much evidence to the contrary, but also the idea that literature is not mutually exclusive with science and is useful to the scientific profession, justified my gravitation towards writing with purpose.  Writing would actually be useful to my career, and isn’t just a frivolous pastime that would never amount to much.

Literature has so much to offer, not only to the profession of medicine but to the world at large.  It has the ability to vocalize challenges that doctors face, and to allow them to better understand and improve any situation that may come up during the course of practice by facilitating discussions among doctors.  Doctors may communicate to each other their experiences, so that they can make improvements to patient treatment.  Hearing a well narrated story with all its descriptions and emotions is a much better means through which to learn and understand a situation, and makes it much more likely for a listener to remember both the story and the lesson in contrast to just hearing a technical explanation of what has taken place.  Because of this, medical literature allows doctors to vicariously learn from mistakes others have made, preventing potential future harm.

In addition to being a means for doctors to communicate among themselves, literature also opens up the profession of medicine to the world.  Literature gives people outside of the medical field a chance to understand the difficulties that arise in medicine and the dilemmas doctors face in their everyday lives.  It gives future doctors an understanding of what life in the medical field holds, as well as patients an understanding of what the other side of the stethoscope looks like.  Literature has potential to do much for the field of medicine and to help shape the future of medical practice.

Physicians are not often seen as storytellers, but their privileged insight into the processes of healing and dying give them such a unique perspective on life and death, and everything in between, as well as the ethics and policies involved in healing others.  They often have stories that the world may benefit from knowing, either by being inspirational or educational.  Yet most of these stories are left untold, flitting around in the busy minds of doctors who are witness to such personal and often poignant moments.


photo jiyaJiyoung is a medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  She is interested in the intersection of seemingly disparate fields.  In her free time, she likes to read, write, develop film and enjoy the great outdoors.

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