Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

The Hippocrates Prize, Obesity and Empathy


Since my last post on the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, I have been invited to read my poem at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing at Westminster in July. I understand that the subject of the meeting will be “the Care Bill and the contribution the arts can make to wellbeing and dignity in care, following on from the Francis Report”.

The focus will be on “how the arts can help to change the culture of care and to ensure that empathy and patients’ individual needs are at the heart of both the training of staff and delivery of care, particularly in the context of acute hospitals”. Robert Francis QC will be speaking and there is also going to be a presentation about the Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College project using the arts in medical training that I will be very interested to hear.

On a related note I met an A&E consultant at the Symposium who also teaches Medical Humanities – a concept somewhat unfamiliar to me as it certainly wasn’t on my medical school curriculum. She recommended a book by Johanna Shapiro PhD entitled The Inner World of Medical Students: Listening to their Voices in Poetry, which I’ve managed to acquire from Amazon for £5. This has a poem in it called Heavy Questions, in which a medical student tries to understand her obese patient’s point of view.

During the Hippocrates Symposium we had a Question and Answer session with a panel of the morning’s speakers, including Sandy Goldbeck-Wood who I wrote about in my previous post, and Luz Mar Gonzalez-Arias from the University of Oviedo in Spain who spoke about anorexia nervosa in recent poetry from Ireland.

I asked whether, in the light of the current obesity epidemic, the panel were aware of any poems or collections of poetry that addressed this topic. In particular I was interested in whether obesity narratives may be found in poetry that might shed some light on the lived experience of those struggling with this issue, and that might in turn inform new approaches to prevention and treatment. This relates back to some recent discussions I’ve been having with colleagues in public health around the need for a new research paradigm in this area.

One poem that was suggested was George Barker’s Sonnet To My Mother, which describes her as “huge as Asia” and “like a mountain/Whom only faith can move”. But this is a secondary poem according to Michael Hulse’s classification, and does not offer any insight into how she became that way or how she feels about it now.

Heavy Questions is a tertiary poem, in that it was written by a healthcare professional. If you didn’t know this though, you would believe it had been written by a patient as it is written in the first person. In this regard it is a piece of imaginative fiction, and as such it slightly defies classification according to a system which assumes a truthful, non-fiction treatment of medical subjects. It is also not very helpful in offering real insight into the patient experience, as I have a sense of it being littered with the writer’s own prejudices and preconceptions regarding both obese patients (“Why don’t you address/My troubled childhood/My loveless marriage/And my dead-end job?”) and doctors too (“Have you ever been overweight a day in your life?” and “When you are treating those who are like me/And you catch yourself/Judging, doubting, and questioning”), who are depicted as distinct and somewhat adversarial entities. It is a good effort, and valuable as a learning exercise, that would be interesting to unpick in a facilitated group setting.

Which brings me back to the subject of empathy, and how poetry might offer an important way in to this difficult but necessary topic for students and healthcare professionals. What poetry is uniquely good at, when done well (and this is why I do think the quality of the poetry is important here), is transmitting emotion and lived/felt experience from one human being to another – to help us to wear another person’s shoes so to speak, if only for a moment: to see what they see from their perspective, and to feel what they feel. It offers us a window into the inner life of another individual, not merely to observe them through but to climb inside and be with. This is empathy, and if Mid Staffordshire is not to be repeated, it is what the NHS desperately needs more of.


  1. – sigh – I agree the NHS needs more empathy – sadly, the more time I spend there, the more saddened I am at the way in which patients are dehumanised; right from medical school upwards, the profession draws people in who are fluent in disconnection and dominance. There is a minority who do care, but my God it is small; on my surgical placement, I lost count of the American-Psycho surgeons whose lust for cutting into people leapt over any consideration as to whether they really wanted or needed the knife. I guess Chomsky would say it’s just the way giant institutions always work. Say it ain’t so, Sam, say it ain’t so…

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