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The Power of Poems in the Waiting Room


People in a waiting room oscillate somewhere between hope and depression. Poems may help to initiate positive emotions and healing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "How much of human life is lost in waiting." This could not be more true than for people in a physician's waiting room. According to a survey, patients spend an average of 21 minutes waiting to see the doctor in the Unites States. But most people can tell stories of waiting for one hour and longer, even with an appointment. More of a concern is the state of mind of patients in the waiting room: Somewhere between hope for a cure, sorrows or even depression – according to personality and the kind of illness.

Why not using this precious time to initiate some hope and positive emotions, which in turn can start the healing process? Usually, patients find an assortment of old and current mainstream magazines and newspapers to read while waiting, but the reading material does nothing to help healing. But poems have the power to evoke positive images and emotions. Such seemed to be the thinking of Michael Lee, who started to distribute pamphlets with poems in a couple of British NHS waiting rooms in 1996, using his own money. The acronym NHS refers to the publicly funded National Health System in the United Kingdom. Patients and NHS staff appreciated the poems very much, and the project Poems In The Waiting Room was born.

Poems are carefully selected in terms of the images and emotions they might generate. A psychotherapist with NHS expertise evaluates and approves them. Ideally, as Michael Lee puts it, poems should "flow from the spring of well-being". Themes of accepted poems are, for instance, home, acceptance, safe journey, friendship or love. They are printed on an A4 card triple folded printed both sides and display works from old masters such as Edward Lear to contemporary poets such as Frances White. Each edition carries approximately seven poems. Patients are encouraged to take the pamphlets home. Have a look at a sample card (PDF).

Demand grew substantially. Nowadays, the project Poems In The Waiting Room distributes more than 30,000 leaflets per quarter for free to practices, surgeries and hospitals across the United Kingdom. The project receives small donations from many patients and from Friends of Poems in the Waiting Room, and grants from charitable trusts such as the Ashley Family Foundation. The poems are very well received among patients as well as physicians. The project's website cites a patient from Richmond: "I picked up your card of poems in the waiting room at Seymour House Surgery this morning and just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. It lifted my spirits and made the waiting time fly by ..."