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Writing and Healing in the Waiting Room: A Research Study

Posted on Feb 27, 2016 by

The study: Implementing an Expressive Writing Study in a Cancer Clinic by Nancy P. Morgan et. al.
The Oncologist, Vol. 13, No. 2, 196-204, February 2008
[Full article available on-line]

As far as I know this is the first study on writing and healing done in the thick of medical care.  It’s a nice practical study.  Conducted outside the quiet of a laboratory.

Researchers at Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown invited cancer patients to do a brief twenty-minute writing task while they waited for their appointments.  Those who agreed to participate were then randomized to respond to one of two different writing prompts.

The first writing prompt is one developed by James Pennebaker:
Cancer can touch every part of your life—issues of family, love, anger, career, life and death, and even issues about childhood and specific experiences in life.  In your writing, let go and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about the issues that you feel are most important to you right now.

The second writing prompt is one unique to this study:
How has cancer changed you and how do you feel about those changes?

Participants wrote in the waiting room and, also in some cases, while back in the exam room, waiting to be seen.

49% reported that the writing changed the way they thought about their illness.
35% reported that the writing changed the way they felt about their illness.
At three-week follow-up, those who reported changing the way they thought about their illness experienced better physical quality-of-life scores.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the study was this notion of feasibility—that people could and did write in the waiting room.  This in what sounds like a very ordinary waiting room—noisy and busy and rife with interruptions.  Of 98 people invited to participate, 71 agreed, and 63 completed the 20-minute writing session.

I like this notion—writing in the waiting room.  It’s one way to get around the obstacle that so many people seem to face when it comes to writing—not wanting to add one more task to an overly-full day.  Though one might miss out on the latest People magazine—and though there are certain days when escape inside a People magazine may offer its own kind of respite—there’s something attractive about this idea of using waiting time for writing.

I wonder if this wouldn’t become even more possible in those waiting rooms that pay attention to good design—good comfortable chairs and good lighting and such.  Perhaps an alcove for reading and writing.

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For a glimpse at what’s possible in the design of a waiting room, you might want to take a look at this article in the New York Times about the waiting room at the Jay Monahan Center in Manhattan.

Here’s a description:

The adjacent waiting area, hugely expanded from a cramped rectangle into a spacious serpentine shape, incorporates two walls of windows. Its modern club chairs, in inviting fabrics and bright, strong colors, are not yoked together in the depersonalizing bus-station style. Instead, they are scattered in conversational groupings that can be easily rearranged.

Bamboo floors provide visual warmth – and can be cleaned with soap and water, so antiseptic-smelling cleansers are no longer required. There are no signs prohibiting eating, drinking or talking on cellphones – all are permitted – and patients can do research or check their e-mail on five iMac computers glowing atop sleek maple-and-walnut counters.

Sounds good to me.  And I can’t help wondering—How might an expressive writing study fare in that waiting room?