Poetry in medicine

What I lost

was not going to happen.

I had

what happened.

There was no more. – Grief Without Fantasy by Ronna Bloom (Academy of American Poets, 2017)

In my quest to further understand the interplay between medicine and literature, I came across a CBC article detailing medical humanities initiatives being undertaken at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. The 2018 article featured Ronna Bloom, a psychotherapist, poet, and speaker distributing pre-written poems, composed either by herself or by others, to patients, families, physicians, nurses, other hospital staff and otherwise, anyone interested (Csillag, 2017). According to Bloom, the program ‘Rx for Poetry’ aims to explores a series of topics, including health, mortality, meditation, vulnerability, loss and spontaneity (CBC Radio, 2018). Since its launch, Rx for Poetry has been received warmly and with open arms by Mount Sinai Hospital (CBC Radio,2018). Bloom is simply one individual in a sea of health professionals turned poets. Her experiences parallel the poems of anesthesiologist, Audrey Shafer, who has avidly used this tool to capture the esoteric feelings behind witnessing an individual waking up from anesthesia (Rizzo, 2017).

As an aspiring poetess, I was nevertheless intrigued in coming across these findings – curious, not just about the nuanced experiences of these professionals but also of the new and burgeoning role stanzas of poetry have taken within the realm of medicine. In conducting my research, I was surprised to find that this poetry is increasingly being utilized in medical education. For instance, the Medical Humanities & Arts program at the University of California which emphasizes the integration of humanities and arts-based materials, such as prose and spoken word performances in teaching models (Shapiro & Rucker, 2003). But what benefits does poetry offer in contrast to traditional models of teaching? Research evidence has found reading and writing poetry to be a promising intervention in not only fostering empathy among medical and residency students, but also encouraging discussions of narrative ethics through the exploration of personal and external stories (Gabriel et al., 2018; Shapiro & Rucker, 2003;5). In addition to the previous, the study also found this intervention to increase values of humanism and altruism through personal self-reflection (Shapiro & Rucker, 2003). Another study investigating the effectiveness of poetry in medicine found that poetry enabled health practitioners to better cope with stress and burnout by further developing mindfulness skills (Shapiro, 2001). Such benefits also extend past the field of medical teaching and are also highly applicable to patients, as evidenced by one study, which found that reading and writing poetry encouraged emotional well-being by creating avenues of self-expression. In conjunction with these findings, poetry was also found to foster positive mental health and emotional resilience among individuals with complex and terminal diagnoses (Tegnér, 2009).

As research evidence supporting the use of poetry and other forms of literature in medicine continues to grow, I am interested to see how such findings may best be implemented within the field of medicine in Canada. In particular, how such findings can expand to include culturally-specific forms of poetry, such as South Asia’s ghazals, Russia’s chashtushki, Cambodia’s pathya vat, to cater to an increasingly multicultural workforce and patient population.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash


  1. Academy of American Poets. (2017). Poem in your pocket day. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.poets.org/sites/default/files/poeminpocketday_2017b_0.pdf

  2. Csillag, R. (2017). Ronna Bloom hands out prescriptions in prose at Mount Sinai. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.cjnews.com/culture/books-and-authors/poet-hands-prescriptions-prose

  3. CBC Radio. (2018). Prescription for poetry? How Ronna Bloom uses poetry as medicine. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/thursday-april-5-2018-john-carter-cash-and-jewel-junot-díaz-and-more-1.4604733/prescription-for-poetry-how-ronna-bloom-uses-poetry-as-medicine-1.4604902

  4. Rizzo, M. (2017). The poetic intimacy of administering anesthesia. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/04/16/523816317/the-poetic-intimacy-of-administering-anesthesia

  5. Shapiro, J., & Rucker, L. (2003). Can poetry make better doctors? Teaching the humanities and arts to medical students and residents at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine. Academic Medicine, 78(10), 953-957.Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14534086

  6. Gabriel, P., Lee, J., & Taylor, R. (2018). Evidence-based poetry: using poetic representation of phenomenological research to create an educational tool for enhancing empathy in medical trainees in the management of depression. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 31(2), 75-86. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08893675.2018.1427444

  7. Shapiro, S. L. (2001). Poetry, mindfulness, and medicine. Family Medicine, 33(7), 505-7. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from http://themindfulphysician.com/Resources_files/shauna%20shapiro%20article%20on%20mindfulness%20and%20medicine.pdf

  8. Tegnér, I., Fox, J., Philipp, R., & Thorne, P. (2009). Evaluating the use of poetry to improve well-being and emotional resilience in cancer patients. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 22(3), 121-131.Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08893670903198383