Narrative medicine means more effective healthcare

As undergraduate premedical students, we learned about narrative medicine by chance in a New York Times article titled “Learning to Listen.”

After exploring the research of Dr. Rita Charon, we were both drawn to the new field and what it had to offer us as future medical professionals. The Times article explains, “Through literature, [Dr. Charon] learned how stories are built and told, and translated that to listening to, and better understanding, patients.” As humanities majors, our course work seemed unrelated to our professional pursuits in medicine. Columbia University’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program offered us an exciting opportunity to bridge our backgrounds in Film Studies and English Literature to the treatment of patients.

In her Huffington Post article “Narrative Medicine: Patient-Centered, Touchy-Feely Health Care,” Janice Van Dyck calls narrative medicine a “bright new start in the universe of medical possibilities.” The title of this piece suggests that narrative medicine is a soft, cuddly, “free-hug” practice based on emotion rather than hard scientific methods. Van Dyck also points out that “cynics would say that doctor time is money, and doctors only spend enough time with patients to figure out the best possible profit margin through testing and prolonged treatment.” This criticism suggests that practicing narrative medicine equals spending more time with patients. While narrative medicine does advocate doctors’ initiating meaningful conversations with their patients and being moved by their stories, it does not necessarily mean more hugs or more time. It means more effective healthcare.

As master’s students of narrative medicine and as premedical students, we recognize that medical professionals are currently working within a hurried and overburdened health care system. In cases in which there is limited time, narrative medicine maximizes the dividends of the clinical encounter for both the patient and the doctor. As Film Studies and English Literature majors, we learned how to conduct a “close reading” or analysis of a film or text. Narrative medicine has taught us how to apply those same skills to interpersonal interactions. That is, we learn how to pay attention not only to what people say, but also how they say it. What Dr. Charon refers to as “diagnostic listening” takes factors such as a patient’s tone, body language, word choice, syntax, and the silences between words into account. Practitioners of narrative medicine not only listen with empathy and compassion, but also with more astute perception and increased attention to detail that enhances the quality of patient care.

Imagine learning a new word. All of a sudden you begin hearing this word everywhere despite the fact that the frequency with which you hear the word has not changed. Rather, you been primed to perceive it. Narrative training primes your brain to perceive more from time-constrained conversations in a clinical setting. Beyond bridging our interests in medicine and the humanities, our training in narrative medicine has provided us with a powerful skill set and has provided a new foundation for our future medical practice. Other practitioners may also gain exponentially more from their interactions with patients just by learning to listen.

Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam is a medical student and Jennifer Sotsky is a premedical student. They can be reached on Twitter @JenniferAdaeze and @JenSotsky respectively.

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