Creative writing as a medical instrument

J Med Humanit. 2013 Dec;34(4):459-69. doi: 10.1007/s10912-013-9243-7.


Listening and responding to patients' stories for over 20 years as an emergency physician has strengthened my appreciation for the many ways that the skills and principles drawn from writing fiction double as necessary clinical skills. The best medicine doesn't work on the wrong story, and the stories patients tell sometimes feel like first drafts-vital and fragile works-in-progress. Increasingly complex health challenges compounded by social, financial, and psychological burdens make for stories that are difficult to articulate and comprehend. In this essay, I argue that healthcare providers need to think like creative writers and the skills and sensitivities necessary to story construction deserve a vital space in medical education. A thorough understanding of story anatomy and the imaginative flexibility to work stories into open spaces serve as antidotes to the reductive nature of clinical decision making and have implications as patient safety and risk management strategies. The examples that I have selected demonstrate how thinking like a creative writer functions at the bedside, providing tools for clinical excellence and empathy. This approach asks that we re-imagine the importance of story in clinical care: from a vehicle to a diagnosis to its place as a critical destination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anecdotes as Topic
  • Creativity*
  • Emergency Medicine*
  • Humans
  • Writing*