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Literature and Medicine Plus - A Program from California Humanities

Humanities Surface in Veterans Affairs Medical Centers Through Literature & Medicine®

Literature & Medicine® is a humanities-based professional development program for health care workers that engages clinical staff members in reading and discussion programs facilitated by humanities scholars. Literature & Medicine® invites caregivers to better understand and empathize with the experience of their patients – as well as their peers through reading, reflection, and conversation. Since introducing this program in 2010, California Humanities has implemented the program in Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers across the state under a licensing agreement with the Maine Humanities Council. We are currently offering the program at VA hospitals in Fresno, Palo Alto, Sacramento, and San Francisco and plan to expand to other health care facilities soon.

While the benefits for participating in this program have included increasing job satisfaction, lessening burnout, improving communications skills, and building greater capacity for cultural competence among participants, many participants have noted that taking part in Literature & Medicine® has helped has improve the quality of health care they provide for their patients. Each Literature & Medicine® site includes collaboration between a facilitator or a humanities scholar who leads discussions, in addition to an onsite staff coordinator known as a liaison who organizes program activities, and up to 25 staff participants in diverse clinical and administrative roles who take part in each session. We spoke with three people who have participated in the Literature & Medicine® program at VA Medical Centers firsthand to learn how this unique program has touched their work. Here is what we found in our interviews.

Natalie Purcell, Liaison San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center
“Literature & Medicine® will nurture your soul and help reconnect you with your purpose as a health care provider.” 

I’m the Literature & Medicine® program coordinator and site liaison for the San Francisco VA.  I have the opportunity to work with our skilled facilitator (Stanford Humanities scholar Dr. Jackie Genovese) and with staff throughout the health care system. Together we coordinate the dinner-and-discussion series every year and ensure that a diverse group of clinicians and other employees in our health care system have an opportunity to take part. The San Francisco VA has held five annual series of this program, and we are starting our sixth in a few weeks.

What I enjoy most about the Literature & Medicine® program is the opportunity to build community among diverse clinicians and employees who are able to connect and get to know one another in ways that would not otherwise be possible.  Literature & Medicine® gives us the space to talk openly and sincerely about the meaning of the work we do, and the complexities and challenges of caring for veterans in our health care system. The readings and discussions are also a tremendous vehicle for stretching our empathy muscles and learning to relate to people who are very different from us. Literature & Medicine® reminds us why we all work in healthcare.

This program always renews my commitment to providing health care services for veterans. My own experience in the program has also inspired me to think about ways that we can bring more humanities-oriented programming directly to veterans. With our new Integrative Health service line, we are looking for ways to do exactly this. Participating in Literature & Medicine® can be a beautiful learning experience and a treasured opportunity to connect with your colleagues in new ways. It will nurture your soul and help reconnect you with your purpose as a health care provider.

Lori Williams, BA RDH, Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center
“By reading literature of ‘people,’ I aspire to be more empathetic to my patients and hope they feel comfortable to continue their care.”

I am a dental hygienist at the VA Hospital in Fresno. Two and a half years ago I discovered the Literature & Medicine® program through our work email. The idea of a professor choosing books that would help me identify with my patients and leading the reading group discussions after we read the books inspired me. This is my third session! Facilitator, Dr. Kris Clarke is a natural at leading discussions. She has a method of helping us generate a deeper understanding of the material. Each book addresses a social or medical issue that forces the reader to identify with the individual or individuals in the book. With each book there is usually at least one individual among us who can relate to the author as if the story was their own. At times I have walked into the discussion with a narrow view of the book. By the end of our discussions I always leave with a deeper understanding of the material and often my ignorance is diffused.

As a dental provider for veterans I deal with patients from all races, cultures, socioeconomic levels, religions, and opinions. A deeper understanding of various values and beliefs is beneficial in providing excellent care. Many of my patients are dealing with PTSD, war inflicted physical injuries, and societal prejudices. By reading literature of “people,” I aspire to be more empathetic to my patients and hope they feel comfortable to continue their care. I recommend Literature & Medicine® to all practitioners who enjoy reading poignant subjects, discussing books, and want to know more about the people they are treating. Finally, one of the finest perks of the program is the books are free! I love this program and hope it continues throughout my career.

Dr. Karen English, Facilitator Palo Alto Veterans Affairs (PAVA) Medical Center, Professor of Literature at San Jose State University
“. . .  we find ourselves doing the privileged, patriotic work of fostering a more compassionate and effective health care system.”

I am the “facilitator” at PAVA, which means I choose different themes for our annual sessions and anguish over creating the perfect mix of works for us to read or view. Being facilitator also means that I am not an instructor and our sessions are not classes. My job is to make sure that every participant feels welcome to respond to the poem, the play, the film, the novel, or the essay at hand. More practically, I call the bathroom breaks and am respectful of an on-time conclusion because our participants have already put in a full day of work before they come to our 2.5-hour, monthly meetings. After training at a 2010 national conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council, my remarkably gifted liaison and I started the first program in spring 2011 and are looking forward to our next program in 2019.

I love seeing the dedication health care providers at PAVA bring to the care of veterans and their families; I love interacting with grown-up readers who bring diverse perspectives, wide-ranging insights, and good-humored camaraderie to the table. Plus I also love the vegetarian Thai pumpkin curry we have at our last session’s dinner.

My academic specialty is American Transcendentalism, so I often quote Ralph Waldo Emerson to express my ideas. In his brilliant essay “Circles,” he writes, “The field cannot be seen from within the field.” Using this cross-disciplinary approach has enriched my personal reading and classroom teaching. If you want to know more about the teaching, here is a link to an interview. While our primary goal at the PAVA Literature & Medicine® program is to examine the intersection of literature, medicine, and the experiences of American veterans and their families, we find ourselves doing the privileged, patriotic work of fostering a more compassionate and effective health care system.

If you are interested in learning more about Literature & Medicine® contact Associate Program Officer, Lucena Lau Valle.

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