WHAT IS A good gift for a freshly minted physician? In Scotland, it is a book of poetry. Each year, the 900 or so graduating medical students in Scotland receive a free copy of a poetry book titled “Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors.” It's a pocket-size book with fewer than 100 pages, so doctors can easily carry it while on duty. The poems are grouped into five themes designed to help young physicians: looking after yourself, looking after others, beginnings, being with illness, and endings.
The idea is to help young doctors navigate the stress of the vocation without forgetting the humanity of their patients. “I remind students in their first week that neglect [of patients] is a real consequence of disregarding the human aspect of what we do,” says David Crossman, dean of the medical school at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and chief scientist for Scotland.
“These poems just bring you back and help you understand who you are talking to.” The book came about after Lesley Morrison, a general practitioner and a tutor at Edinburgh University medical school, lost a friend. “I had a longstanding interest in medical humanities and how they can be used in education and medicine,” says Dr. Morrison.
When her friend died, she says, “I said to myself I'd stop talking about it and do it.” She teamed up with the independent Scottish Poetry Library where she met Lilias Fraser, projects manager at the library and one of the book's co-editors.
“Amazingly, we raised enough to print the first edition [in 2014] from individual donations,” says Dr. Morrison. The second edition, published in 2016, was financially sponsored by the Royal College of General Practitioners (Scotland) and the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland, a provider of indemnity insurance and advice for health-care professionals across the U.K.
“To be able to re-engage with the human side you need a catalyst,” says Dr. Crossman, who recounts that during his medical training—long before the book came out—he used to read poems himself. “I felt hugely energized by reading them,” he says.
Some young doctors say the poetry book is helping them. Lewis Hughes, age 23, is currently in Dundee, Scotland, in a two-year rotation of clinical training. A poem he found very meaningful is Bernard O'Donoghue's “Going Without Saying,” which affirms the value of simply telling someone how much we like them. He says it is heavily related to his work.
“Working in medicine lets you peek behind an odd veil into the reality of people's lives and deaths, warts and all,” he says. “I took heart having read the second stanza, that even in the midst of what can be a gloomy journey, we can be a source of comfort for people where there is very little light by making their goodbye a fulfilling one.”
Edinburgh University medical student Lekaa Rambabu, 20, also has found solace in the poems and reads them regularly at night before going to sleep. One she likes is “The Precious 10 Minutes” by Hamish Whyte, about the patient's perspective on talking with doctors.
“I don't feel rushed,” the poem says. “It's a conversation. It all seems as it should be.”
BY SIMON CONSTABLE