Narrative medicine: doctors embraces storytelling
Doctors embrace storytelling to gain a more complete understanding of medical history

Storytelling contains unparalleled magic. A story allows us to expiate past wrongs and spread significant moments. Finally, a story lets words exist in a more meaningful context. That power is what Dr. Rita Charon attempted to tap into when she began using storytelling in her medical practice. Her practice in the early 80’s consisted of vain attempts to put a patient’s health record together using only lab tests and diagnostic scans. Charon felt there was a still a piece missing from the big picture but eventually she found it in the patient’s story—thus “narrative medicine” was born.

Charon defines narrative medicine as “medicine practiced with [the] skills of recognizing, absorbing, interpreting, and being moved by the stories of illness.”1 Using the narratives of patients, families, caregivers and other medical professionals, doctors are able to put together a comprehensive picture of a patient’s health condition. Like words in a story, symptoms have more meaning when placed alongside beliefs, habits, fears and family demographics. “We embed the illness into the life story of the person in such a way that we discover meaning and purpose in both the illness and the experience of recovery.”3 It requires an honest and sincere communication among doctor, caregiver, and patient. Of course, there is pain that comes with emotional involvement but with training in both narrative analysis and medicine doctors can set boundaries while remaining open to hearing the patient’s story.

Taking the time to hear the context of a patient’s health condition is hard for doctors when hospitals are working at capacity. But it will be well worth it to take the extra couple of minutes. Not only will doctors get a more accurate health picture but also will be less likely to be sued for an accident or misdiagnosis.6 According to the research done by Wendy Levinson and Nalini Ambady, doctors’ likelihood of being sued relies almost entirely on how they talk to their patients.

Narrative medicine has enormous benefits for the patient and caregiver. They will be getting a higher quality of healthcare and better diagnoses. Additionally, they will be experiencing the magic that happens when storytelling: “The beauty of the narrative approach is in people getting to tell their story, to speak their life and make sense of it.”3Caregivers will have a standing invitation to speak about their own struggles and health conditions. No longer will depression, insomnia, migraines, and back pain be isolated symptoms, but rather side effects from a strenuous and consuming role. Narrative analysis can be an asset to caregivers with their care recipients. “Caregivers who possess ‘narrative competence’ are able to bridge the ‘divides’ of their relation to mortality, the contexts of illness, beliefs about disease causality, and emotions of shame, blame, and fear…. [Charon] argues that careful reading of narratives builds skills that improve medical care, including intersubjectivity between caregiver and patient.”1

At The Caregiver Space, we stress the importance of sharing stories to maintain emotional health. Dr. Rita Charon saw yet another application for storytelling. In the fall of 2009 Columbia University began a new program for a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine. The first program of its kind, “this important educational advance improves the quality of patient care and contributes to the healing of our ailing health care system itself.”2 Charon is the director and founder of the department, working alongside an impressive faculty. Writing, reading, and sharing—these are a caregiver’s coping tools. Narrative medicine allows them to be a doctor’s tools too.



1 Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon

2 The Narrative Medicine Program – Columbia University

3 Narrative Medicine Heals Body and Souls by Lorrie Klosterman

4 Learning to Listen By Gina Kolata

5 Narrative Medicine: Patient-Centered, Touchy-Feely Health Care by Janice Van Dyck

6 Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.

Written by Alexandra Axel
Alexandra Axel was the first founding staff member at The Caregiver Space. As a New York native, Allie grew up people-watching and story-collecting, eventually pursuing her undergraduate degree from The College of New Jersey in sociology and creative writing. At The Caregiver Space, she worked with social media, graphic design, blogging, and program development to brand and grow an online community composed of, and focused on, caregivers. From the seedlings of an idea to the thriving community that it is today, Allie was there from the beginning to support the evolution of The Caregiver Space. Allie enjoys writing poetry and short fiction, devouring books, biking, crafting, urban agriculture and imperfectly cooking. She currently resides in Brooklyn with her pup, Hen.

Related Articles

Reshaping Canada’s caregiving system

Reshaping Canada’s caregiving system

If every caregiver took one week off, our care systems would collapse before noon on the very first day. Maybe even earlier. The sustainability of...

Popular categories

After Caregiving
Finding Meaning
Finding Support

Don't see what you're looking for? Search the library

Share your thoughts


Share your thoughts and experiences

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join our communities

Whenever you want to talk, there’s always someone up in one of our Facebook communities.

These private Facebook groups are a space for support and encouragement — or getting it off your chest.

Join our newsletter

Thoughts on care work from Cori, our director, that hit your inbox each Monday morning (more-or-less).

There are no grand solutions, but there are countless little ways to make our lives better.

Share your insights

Caregivers have wisdom and experience to share. Researchers, product developers, and members of the media are eager to understand the nature of care work and make a difference.

We have a group specifically to connect you so we can bring about change.