Johanna Shapiro, the director of the Program in Medical Humanities and Arts at the University of California, has used poetry to teach medicine for many years. She considers poetry an important tool to broaden doctors’ understanding of patient care. Her analysis of student poetry shows that the students often use various elements of poetry, such as vivid detail, metaphor, point of view, and emotional expression, to explore relationships with their patients, patients’ families, and their supervisors.
In 2005, Shapiro reviewed a total of 171 poems written by third-year medical students over a 4-year period. During the third-year internal medicine and paediatric clerkships at the University of California, Irving, students are required to write poems as a required humanities component of their coursework. Students were taught to use any creative medium to reflect on a medical encounter that had been disturbing or memorable for them. Shapiro keeps the parameters of the assignment very general to allow the students to interpret it through their own creative lens. Students were told in advance that they would share their art or poetry in small groups of peers, facilitated by interdisciplinary supervisors. Honest reflections were encouraged, but nothing at a level that might be embarrassing or too personal. Students were also reminded that their experiences were simply their own perspectives and did not always represent or mirror the experiences of others. The creative assignment was not to cement the students’ perspectives but to encourage them to explore, refine, or even reconsider them.
From this work, Johanna Shapiro found that writing poetry may exert a healing influence on students and may be a positive tool to help students emotionally navigate the different relationships they encounter during their training. She has proven that poetry can be helpful for expressing the individual students’ perceptions, concerns, and feelings, as well as understanding those of others.
Johanna Shapiro and Howard Stein. “Poetic License: Writing Poetry as a Way for Medical Students to Examine Their Professional Relational Systems.” Families, Systems, & Health Vol 23, no 3 (2005): 278-292. https://johannashapiro.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/POETIC-LICENSE.MEDICAL-STUDENTS.pdf