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Literature & Medicine Offers Space to Thoughtfully Reflect While Improving the Quality of Health Care Provided to Patients

“. . . we find ourselves doing the privileged, patriotic work of fostering a more compassionate and effective health care system.”

-Dr. Karen English, Facilitator Palo Alto Veterans Affairs (PAVA) Medical Center, Professor of Literature at San Jose State University

Literature & Medicine is a humanities-based professional development program for health care workers that engages hospital staff members in reading and discussion programs facilitated by humanities scholars. Through reading, discussion and reflection, Literature & Medicine invites caregivers to engage in productive conversations that help them better understand and increase their empathy with the experience of their patients and their peers. Since introducing this program in 2010, California Humanities has implemented Literature & Medicine in Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers and has recently expanded this program to public hospitals.

The benefits of participating in this program have included increasing job satisfaction, lessening burnout, improving communication skills, and building greater capacity for cultural competence among participants. Additionally, many participants have noted that taking part in Literature & Medicine has helped improve the quality of health care they provide for their patients. Recognizing the new strains that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused on healthcare providers, Literature & Medicine can offer participants space to thoughtfully reflect on their work and connect with their colleagues.

Each Literature & Medicine site includes collaboration between a facilitator or a humanities scholar who leads discussions, 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. In our Humanities Surface in Veterans Affairs Medical Centers Through Literature & Medicine blog, we published interviews with medical staff who participate in the program. Here are a few excerpts from our conversations with Natalie Purcell, Liaison San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Lori Williams, Liaison, Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Dr. Karen English, Facilitator Palo Alto Veterans Affairs (PAVA) Medical Center, Professor of Literature at San Jose State University.

“I’m the Literature & Medicine program coordinator and site liaison for the San Francisco Veterans Affairs,” shares Natalie Purcell. “What I enjoy most about the Literature & Medicine program is the opportunity to build community among diverse clinicians and employees who can 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.”

Lori Williams, site liaison at the Fresno Veterans Affairs Medical Center has participated in Literature & Medicine since 2018. As a dental provider for veterans, she deals with patients from all races, cultures, socioeconomic levels, religions, and opinions. Regarding the Literature & Medicine program, she states, “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 is the facilitator at Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which means she chooses different themes for their annual sessions and works to create the perfect mix of works for them to read or view. She explains that her 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. 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. 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.”

The Literature & Medicine program is seeking a facilitator at the new Los Angeles site and hospital partners. To inquire, please contact Program Officer, Lucena Lau Valle.

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