A breath of fresh air: images of respiratory illness in novels, poems, films, music, and paintings

J Health Psychol. 2015 Mar;20(3):246-58. doi: 10.1177/1359105314566613.


The nature and severity of respiratory disease are typically expressed with biomedical measures such as pulmonary function, X-rays, blood tests, and other physiological characteristics. The impact of respiratory illness on the sufferer, however, is reflected in the stories patients tell: to themselves, their social environment, and their health care providers. Behavioral research often applies standardized questionnaires to assess this subjective impact. Additional approaches to sampling patients' experience of respiratory illness may, however, provide important and clinically useful information that is not captured by other methods. Herein, we assert that novels, poems, movies, music, and paintings may represent a rich, experiential understanding of the patient's point of view of asthma, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, and tuberculosis. Examination of these works illustrates the broad range and major impact of respiratory illness on patients' quality of life. We suggest that examining how illness is represented in various art forms may help patients, their social environment, and their health care providers in coping with the illness and in humanizing medical care. Medical students' clinical skills may benefit when illness experiences as expressed in art are incorporated in the medical curriculum. More generally, Narrative Health Psychology, Narrative Medicine, and Medical Humanities deserve more attention in education, training, and clinical care of (respiratory) physicians, medical students, and other health care professionals.

Keywords: Medical Humanities; Narrative Health Psychology; Narrative Medicine; art; medical education; respiratory illness.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Medicine in the Arts*
  • Motion Pictures*
  • Music*
  • Paintings*
  • Poetry as Topic*
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / psychology*