As part of the BBC’s celebration NHS at 70 in 2018, Rita Charon, doyenne of narrative medicine at Columbia University, New York, contributed five episodes for BBC Radio 3’s The Essay about how study of literature and fiction can help clinicians to engage more fruitfully with patients. The overall theme is that reading about people and their existential struggles can open the reader’s imagination to important issues in the lives of their patients. And in literature these issues are often described from completely different perspectives from the reader’s, resulting in an important process of reframing.

The literature used in these five short essays are James Baldwin’s short story Sonny’s Blues, Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and Colson Whitehouse’s The Underground Railroad.

The essays are an excellent introduction for people unused to (or doubting) the value of reading literature. Since many British clinicians are now guided into science courses at the expense of the humanities, they often lack experience of literature, or have limited skills in learning from their reading. Rita Charon gives examples of how her readings have informed her encounters with particular patients, for example how her readings in the experience of slavery and the persisting prejudices of the plantation culture have enabled her to connect with black women patients. She also gives examples of how clinicians involved in reading groups have gone on to write about clinical issues that have been bothering them.

This is an excellent starting point for investigating the movement for using the humanities in medicine.

Links to the programmes on the BBC Radio 3 The Essay website:

Sonny’s Blues

The Wings of the Dove

Never Let Me Go

To The Lighthouse

The Underground Railroad


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