As an English instructor, Christopher Bolin has long been intrigued by the communications gap between doctors and patients.
He thinks he has a solution: Make them write poetry together.
At least, that’s the premise of a new creative writing course he’s designed for pre-med students at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.
The course, which will make its debut this fall, was inspired in part by personal experience. He’s watched doctors struggle to find the right words to explain a medical crisis to bewildered patients. He came to the conclusion that “some of the concepts you learn in a creative writing workshop would definitely aid in clinical practice.” Now he wants to teach them to students who are thinking of heading down that path.
One of those skills, he said, is a mastery of imagery and metaphor. With the right choice of words, he believes, health care professionals can do a better job of bridging the gulf with their patients. And what better way to practice those skills, he asks, than writing poetry?
As part of the class, students will be paired up with real patients at CentraCare in St. Cloud, in collaboration with a local doctor. The assignment: Meet once a week to work on a joint creative writing project.
“I’m not interested in the student writing a poem about their clinical experience,” Bolin said. Instead, he said, he wants them to make a personal connection with their “patient partners,” to help them tell a story. They might be asked, for example, to write a haiku together, which requires a precise choice of words.
Bolin believes it’s the kind of experience that can build empathy in future doctors and help patients at the same time. “We want this to be a really meaningful interaction,” he said. He cites studies showing the health benefits in “learning to express themselves.”
Already, he says, he has enough applicants to fill the first class. “I think the desire for this is high,” he said.