Literature & Medicine at Year 5: MFH Plans Program Expansion

In January 2003, the Literature & Medicine program of hospital-based humanities seminars for health-care professionals made its Massachusetts debut. The program, a series of six monthly discussions, brings a diverse group of workers together at each site for professionally facilitated conversations about writings that illuminate the experiences of patients, patients’ families, and caregivers as they confront illness, dying, and the challenges of alleviating pain and anguish. Literature & Medicine is currently being offered by four Massachusetts institutions: Cambridge Health Alliance, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, UMass Memorial Hospital/UMass Medical School in Worcester, and Lahey Clinic in Burlington.

The program, officially titled Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care,® was developed and piloted in Maine by the Maine Humanities Council, which has won two three-year grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to expand the program through training conferences, an electronic newsletter, and a national evaluation project that documents the program’s impact on individual participants. Massachusetts was among the first states to join the program, which now operates in 18 states.

This past spring, the MFH board conducted an in-depth evaluation of the program in Massachusetts. Staff and members of the board’s Program and Evaluation Committee looked at enrollment and attendance records from the hospitals, examined survey data on participants’ experience and observations from facilitators, and interviewed hospital staff members who volunteer as program liaisons. The process was based on the Logic Model developed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which provides a framework for integrating program goals with resources and activities required to achieve those goals and assessing the effects of the program on individuals and, insofar as possible, on institutions.

The findings were overwhelmingly positive, especially with respect to the impact of the program on individual participants. They reported, in strikingly high percentages, that the program had renewed their commitment to their work, enabled them to form valuable new relationships in the workplace, and influenced their professional practice by giving them new understanding of the importance of careful communication, empathy, and sensitivity to differences––especially cultural differences––in their relationships with co-workers, patients, and patients’ families.

With this powerful data in hand, and a generous grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts, the Foundation hopes to add two new sites per year, over the next three years, to the four that currently host the program. Inquiries should be addressed to Kristin O’Connell, MFH Assistant Director and Statewide Coordinator for Literature & Medicine (email or telephone 413-584-8440). Additional information, including lists of readings, can be found at the MFH website and the website of the Maine Humanities Council ( Health care professionals may be interested in attending “Caring for the Caregiver: Perspectives on Literature and Medicine,” a conference to be held in Manchester, New Hampshire on November 9-10.

Comments from participants
(As a result of my experience in the program) I am more likely to slow down just a little in order to see my patients and my staff as very vulnerable human beings—as we all are.

I felt the readings and discussions related to death were particularly helpful in dealing with lingering traumatic feelings I harbor from witnessing children die in the ER and pediatric ICU in which I worked during my 20’s.


As a result of the readings related to these subjects, I think about the internal pain and struggle mental health issues and addictions cause patients. For instance, a 15-year-old patient being diagnosed as psychotic and probably schizophrenic was being cared for, and attempts were made to get the family to admit him for meds to control his mental illness. The parents struggled with his behavior, but we emphasized how difficult his chaotic thoughts and hallucinations must be for him to deal with. This approach came about because I read the Kay Redfield Jamison book An Unquiet Mind.


I feel rejuvenated after a session. The course discussions make me feel proud to be a medical practitioner.


The experience of reading these poems and books has done so much for me in all areas of my life. I have become awakened to the realities of disease, the impact on all of us, as families, societies, religions, nationalities, and traditions.


As a psychologist, hopefully I was already tuned to patients’ emotions and nonverbal cures, but reading stories and poems about real or imagined-real situations others have encountered often exposed me to things I had dealt with before. Discussion within the group offered many levels of thinking and insight beyond what I would come up with on my own. I was REALLY glad to be in this program!


After reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis I worked with a patient who had cancer and was also depressed. I mentioned I had read it. The patient read it too and found new ways to understand his treatment and diagnoses.

©2007 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2007