Atlas – a literary medical journal

Helen Ker

Atlas literary journalAtlas is a literary medical journal, published in print and sold in bookstores around New Zealand, that offers an alternative to the usual scientific discourse that surrounds our bodies. It hopes to shift medical conversations away from the rigid and prescriptive to a literary form that accommodates our human complexities.

I started Atlas in my third year of medical school because I was beginning to see that certain parts of the illness experience are missed through our predominantly scientific ways of theorising illness and treating people. I realised that this had the potential to undermine the quality of patient care because illness is far more than just a pathological process.

Helen Ker
Helen Ker

Our current medical models don’t necessarily accommodate more than just an ‘hypothesise, test, treat’ ethos, and while there is a growing emergence of the ‘bio-psycho-social’ framework which aims to approach illness holistically it is more of a theoretical model than something that actually happens in practice. I thought we needed a better medium for discussing the broader social, existential and structural issues for people and their health, so I started Atlas to try and explore these issues through literature, art and social science.

There is this idea within the medical community that anything social or literature-related is ‘soft’, unobjective and therefore unhelpful but I think the more we practice medicine the more we realise how ‘soft’ and complex people actually are and by virtue of that their illness experience. Most doctors will agree that medicine is surprisingly subjective and we need to be able to think flexibly about how illness presents and what the best treatment approach is. It is often really helpful and therapeutic in itself to listen to a patient’s non-medical worries, because they often give really important clues into what’s underlying their physical problems. I also think that this process can be therapeutic for doctors, because it reconnects us with the reasons we originally wanted to get into medicine which is to care (I hope).

The difficulty is that there are so many barriers to this within the modern healthcare setting. As I’ve spent more time in clinical practice (mostly in the hospital) I’ve seen just how great the pressure is on doctors to manage huge volumes of patients at an incredibly fast pace. To expect them to attend to their patients’ existential and social needs on top of this is in most cases totally unrealistic. But I think if we can slowly focus our attention on the broader issues affecting people through writing, advocacy and stories of patient experience, the ‘softer’ stuff will become more natural and ingrained in our ways of thinking about our patients’ illnesses. While structural change seems unlikely given the growing demand for healthcare, I think there is hope in our ability to generate a cultural shift in how doctors and patients define successful medical care. I think it will be a slow process but writing about it is an important first step.

Submissions are open for Atlas 2018

Atlas is currently calling for submissions of essays, short-form think pieces and poetry that approach questions of the human body and health care system with originality, critique and breadth. The editors are particularly interested in writing that takes a wider historical or social perspective on topics typically analysed within empirical science. If you are interested in contributing, please get in touch with us at atlasliteraryjournal@gmail.com. Submissions close on the 30th of June 2018.

Find out more about Atlas, including how to purchase, here.


Helen Ker is the founder and editor of Atlas. She is a medical student in her final year of study who is currently working at Taranaki Base Hospital, New Zealand. Her research interests include the sociological reception of epigenetics and the intersection between indigenous epistemology and the science of epigenetic inheritance.

2 thoughts on “Atlas – a literary medical journal”

  1. What an excellent idea, and very much needed! As a masters student of medical anthropology, and also as a patient, I have for a long time observed those same gaps that you descibe.

    I can think of several topics that I could write about, both from the perspective of a patient, and also as a scholar whose interests lie in this area, and I will be in touch to discuss that.

    All the best with your venture!

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