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Fifty-five word stories: A unique form for reflection and creative expression in medical humanities

 Department of Education, Chellaram Diabetes Institute, Pune, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission01-Sep-2021
Date of Acceptance18-Sep-2021

Correspondence Address:
Shailesh Rajaram Deshpande,
Chellaram Diabetes Institute, Lalani Quantum, Pune-Bengaluru Bypass, Bavdhan, Budruk, Pune - 411 021, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/mjdrdypu.mjdrdypu_720_21


The fifty-five word story form is gaining popularity within the field of medical humanities. Health-care professionals, particularly in the USA, are exploring the form as a means of creative expression to describe their encounters with patients, or comment on the practice of medicine. Its brevity and exactness are especially appealing for busy professionals. In addition, its potential as a method for personal reflection and teaching, which can lead to personal and professional growth, is also being realized. Medical institutions in the USA have encouraged their faculty and students to write about their experiences of the unprecedented challenges arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic by using this form, which has elicited a good response. The 55-word story form offers great promise for health-care professionals in India and other developing countries, for giving vent to their experiences while practicing in diverse settings.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, fifty-five word stories, medical humanities, short stories

How to cite this URL:
Deshpande SR. Fifty-five word stories: A unique form for reflection and creative expression in medical humanities. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth [Epub ahead of print] [cited 2023 Mar 20]. Available from: https://www.mjdrdypv.org/preprintarticle.asp?id=335331

“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences; what others say in a whole book.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche.

  The Fifty-Five Word Story Form Top

The short story is a popular form of creative expression, which over a period of time, has evolved considerably, presently including the distinct subgenre of “microfiction,” characterized by remarkably brief stories of <1000 words.[1]

Some unique types of microfiction have now developed, especially those that are exactly of a certain length, such as the 55-word short stories, where the idea is to narrate, preferably in precisely 55 words, a story that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a patient or about the practice of medicine.

The form gained popularity after the publication in 1998 of the book “World's Shortest Stories.”[2] It inspired many in the health-care profession to experiment with this style, like Scheetz and Fry, who saw in this form the possibilities for writing about their patients and their encounters with them.[3] It is probably the earliest example of 55-word stories in the field of medical humanities.

Christianson, whose stories were published in 2002, considered the format an emotional outlet, a type of abbreviated “journaling,” and an ideal creative endeavor for busy professionals who did not have the time or inclination to write longer stories.[4] In a later publication, she commented that the form allowed her to work through her feelings about difficult patient interactions and helped define her own role as a physician.[5]

Over the years, 55-word stories have become not just a channel for creative expression within the health-care profession but also a method for personal reflection and teaching, potentially leading to personal and professional growth.[6] Writing stories can assist both learners and seasoned clinicians to integrate their experiences into their professional roles.

Several institutions, particularly in the USA, are encouraging health-care professionals as well as students to experiment with this form for writing about their interactions with patients. For instance, the medical students at the Uniformed Services University have been participating in an annual seminar to develop 55-word stories that capture memorable patient care experiences.[7]

Specialists are scripting stories that relate to the experiences within their own discipline, like a pediatrician has written 55-word stories based on his encounters in his own specialty.[8]

Lately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when health-care professionals have been grappling with the physical and psychological issues arising out of their role as frontline workers, the form has served to be a useful medium of articulation.

The Association of American Medical Colleges has encouraged health-care professionals to share their stories, reflections, and poetry related to their experiences during the pandemic, eliciting a good response.[9]

Individual institutions like the UW School of Medicine invited their faculty and students to share their experiences during the pandemic with the belief that it would increase connectedness and well-being and that hearing stories from others would help strengthen their community.[10]

In India and other developing countries, where medical humanities is still a nascent field, 55-word stories can offer a useful creative outlet to the busy health-care professionals as they deal with myriad patient-related issues in diverse settings, more so in the pandemic situation.

For budding writers, to begin with, here are a few tips. The only rule as such is that the story (or poem) should be of exactly 55 words (the title does not count towards the word count). You could write about any interesting patient encounter, or any aspect of health care or your training. You could jot down whatever comes to mind regarding that narrative, and then work to edit that which is unnecessary, to arrive at the count of 55 words. Alternatively, you could start with a single line and expand the narrative up to 55 words. Even within this microformat, it is worthwhile to see that the story is engrossing and reflects your thoughts, feelings, and emotions truthfully. Practice can help you master the form.

Here are a few of my 55-word stories (names changed), which capture varied experiences of a typical practicing physician. Hopefully, they would serve to stimulate the health-care professionals from India and other countries to write their own stories using this innovative form.

  Some Illustrative Fifty-Five Word Stories Top

Doctors' day

Dr. Sane entered the auditorium for the doctors' day function, just as his name was being announced.

The chief guest felicitated him to applause by the audience - his hospital colleagues.

But soon, he hurried to the exit and proceeded to his consulting room.

There, he kept his medal aside.

He had patients to see.

A long day… A long night

Dr. Sane had a long day, seeing his 37th patient late into the night.

He returned home even as his kids were fast asleep.

Mrs. Sane coldly served him a cold dinner and returned to the bedroom.

He ate a bit and just slumped into the couch.

He was now staring at a long night.

The placebo effect

“Doctor Saab, your injection has worked wonders! I am feeling so fresh and energetic now”, beamed Chanda at the clinic door.

Dr. Sane smiled approvingly.

Chanda had vague somatic complaints, and since she insisted for an injection, he had obliged by administering a multivitamin shot.

He knew too well the power of the placebo effect.

Attending an online CME

Dr. Sane logged in for the online CME in time.

He muted the audio and video straightaway.

It was Saturday evening, and he had to see the numerous patients waiting outside his consulting room.

By the time he returned to the CME, it was long over.

He then nonchalantly proceeded to download his participation certificate.

No miracle worker

Dr. Sane was seeing the patient after almost a year.

He had advised tumor resection surgery, but her relatives had preferred treatment from another health practitioner, being promised a “complete cure.”

Now, with her cancer progressing to terminal stage, they were begging him no end.

Yet, Dr. Sane understood well his limitations in performing miracles.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Wiesen G. What Is Micro Fiction? Available from: https://www.infobloom.com/what-is-micro-fiction.htm. [Last accessed on 2021 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 1
Moss S, editor. World's Shortest Stories. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers; 1998.  Back to cited text no. 2
Scheetz A, Fry ME. A piece of my mind. The stories. JAMA 2000;283:1934.  Back to cited text no. 3
Christianson AL. A piece of my mind. More stories. JAMA 2002;288:931.  Back to cited text no. 4
Christianson AL. A piece of my mind. Years of stories. JAMA 2009;302:1042.  Back to cited text no. 5
Fogarty CT. Fifty-five word stories: “Small Jewels” for personal reflection and teaching. Fam Med 2010;42:400-2.  Back to cited text no. 6
Aleman-Reyes DM, Alindogan A, Black JM, Horch MJ, Husson CM, Chang JG. “Round 4: 55-Word Stories of Medical Students' Clerkship Experiences”. Mil Med 2020;185:409-10.  Back to cited text no. 7
Girone JA. Little stories. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2004;158:91.  Back to cited text no. 8
Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC): Fundamental Role of Arts and Humanities in Medical Education (FRAHME). Creative Expressions during Times of Uncertainty: Stories and Poems. Available from: https://frahme-aamc.org/stories-poems/. [Last accessed on 2021 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 9
UW Medicine COVID-19 Support. 55 Word Stories. Available from: https://faculty.uwmedicine.org/55-word-stories/. [Last accessed on 2021 Aug 30].  Back to cited text no. 10


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