Why You Should Ask Your Doctor if He Reads Fiction

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on May 2, 2016 • views: 1798

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a doctor.

It’s not just the fact that some are more experienced or efficient than others. It’s that a good relationship with your doctor is important to your health, and let’s face it: we simply get along better with some people than others.

So how can you tell if a certain physician is the one for you? There are several ways you can go about it, but for writers, it may be easier than you thought.

You just need to ask the M.D. one question:

Do you read fiction?

Literature Introduces Us to Complicated Human Beings

Silly? Absolutely not.

Would you be surprised to learn that The Lancet, a reputable scientific journal, published a couple of articles about this last year? The main one, written by ENT (head and neck) surgeon and author Gabriel Weston—who actually got a degree in English literature before going into medicine—talks about how reading literature helps a physician develop empathy.

Weston was 24 years old when she realized that medicine was her calling, and she was afraid her English lit degree had been a waste of time. She later realized how wrong she was.

She tells the story of when she was a junior doctor at an emergency department, and a man came in “whom none of us doctors wanted to see.” He was old, cursing, smelling of liquor, and covered in blood.

“What would we learn from someone like this?” Weston writes. “He was drunk and messy and would probably be verbally abusive.”

Somehow, Weston ended up treating the man. While helping to clean the blood off him, she learned that he had been a lawyer, that his son had died of a heroin overdose, and that after the death, his wife had left him. He started drinking and lost his job and his house, eventually ending up on the streets. That night, he had been attacked by a group of young men.

Weston realized as the old man talked that she had horribly misjudged him:

“What had I assumed when I first saw him coming into the department that evening, painted with blood? That he was a loser, someone worthless? What kind of doctor was I to have written him off in this way?”

She says she should have known better, not only because she was older than her peers, but because of her degree in English lit:

“I thought of Magwitch, Charles Dickens’ munificent convict in the marshes, I thought of Macbeth and Medea committing their crimes of regicide and child-killing. I thought of the eponymous protagonist in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I had just finished reading. None of the great characters in literature were clean or simple or saccharine-coated. People were more interesting than that, and more difficult.”

Does Your Doctor Listen to You?

Dr. Weston goes on to say that she thinks of that night often, and of how literature and doctoring go together. Reading literature, she says, “forces one to listen to people in a different way,” a more open and accepting way. This type of listening not only helps a doctor better understand what a patient may be going through, but can “fall on the patient like a kind of balm.”

When was the last time your doctor listened to you? Really listened?

It’s not easy. How easy is it for any of us to truly listen to others? And what if you were expected to do it day after day, year after year? Dr. Weston admits that she, herself, is a work in progress as far as this is concerned, reminding us that doctors are people, too. The point is that she recognizes the importance of it.

Does your physician?

Books Help Doctors Understand Where Patients are Coming From

In an editorial for the same issue, The Lancet editors write that there are other reasons healthcare professionals might benefit from reading fiction:

“Books offer the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, through the vicarious experiences of other people, places, and times.”

A doctor needs to understand where his patient is coming from to increase his odds of making a proper diagnosis—and that’s more important than you may think. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, which reviewed 25 years of malpractice claims payouts, it was diagnostic errors—not surgical mistakes or medication overdoses—that accounted for the largest percentage of claims, and the most severe patient harm.

What if your doctor diagnosed you with heartburn when you were actually having a heart attack, or an inner ear problem when you actually had cancer? You can imagine the fallout.

David E. Newman-Toker, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study, stated that diagnostic errors could be the biggest patient safety problem in our country.

“There’s a lot more harm associated with diagnostic errors than we imagined,” he said.

The editors of The Lancet assert that fiction can introduce doctors to a variety of different characters from different cultures, which can help them perhaps gain a better understanding with a new patient in a shorter period of time. Thoughtful reading, they say, develops skills like observation, analysis, and reflection, which are all fundamental to good care.

“To read can mean both to decode a set of symbols and a structure and also to find meaning in a person or situation. Perhaps in a setting that can sometimes be difficult, frightening, or bizarre, that is the most important reason of all.”

Fiction Helps Develop One’s Compassion

There are other studies indicating that reading fiction can help one develop compassion. In 2014, for example, PLoS One published a study in which researchers mapped brain activity of participants who were reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They discovered that when reading a passage that involved a flying broom, the same areas lit up in the brain as would light up when someone was detecting movement in the real world.

In another study, researchers found that when reading something that describes an action (such as kicking a ball), the brain reacts the same as when we, ourselves, kick a ball.

In other words, fiction taps into the same brain regions as real life does. And by doing so, helps us experience some of what it’s like to be someone else.

A 2013 study showed this to be true. Using brain imaging, researchers found that actual changes in the brain lingered for several days after participants finished reading a novel.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said lead author and neuroscientist Gregory Berns. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Writers already know this. We know how it is to feel a character’s emotions so viscerally that we’re exhausted after a fight scene, or emotionally wrought after a death scene.

But studies have found that it’s not only writers who are affected this way. Readers are, too. And it doesn’t matter if that reader us an avid fantasy fan…or a medical professional.

Have You Asked the Question?

There are a number of things to consider when looking for a good doctor. Experience is one of the biggest ones, especially if you’re looking at going through surgery. But bedside manner is more than just a “nice to have,” especially in your family physician or gynecologist (whom many women see more often than their family physicians). When something is really wrong, it could make the difference between whether your doctor makes the correct diagnosis or not.

Of course, there will be doctors who read fiction that may not be all that compassionate or empathetic, but it’s an easy question to ask, isn’t it? Especially for writers.

Do you read fiction?

The answer may tell you a lot more than you expected.

Do you talk to your doctor about books? Please share your story.

“Literature and medicine: why do we care?” The Lancet, January 10, 2015; 385(9963):90, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2960004-6/fulltext?rss=yes.

Gabriel Weston, “Developing judgment, not being judgmental,” The Lancet, January 10, 2015; 385(9963):108-109, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2960010-1/fulltext.

“Diagnostic Errors More Common, Costly and Harmful Than Treatment Mistakes,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, April 23, 2013, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/diagnostic_errors_more_common_costly_and_harmful_than_treatment_mistakes.

Christopher Bergland, “Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic?” Psychology Today, December 1, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201412/can-reading-fictional-story-make-you-more-empathetic.

Leila Wehbe, et al., “Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses,” PLoS One, November 26, 2014; 9(11):e112575, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0112575.

“A novel look at how stories may change the brain,” Emory University, December 17, 2013, http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html.

Christopher Bergland, “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function,” Psychology Today, January 4, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201401/reading-fiction-improves-brain-connectivity-and-function.

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  1. My doctor not only reads fiction, she buys books (including mine!) and hands them out to her patients.