Storytelling Serves as the ...


The power of storytelling is now being deployed in medicine.

The Irish Times writes on the topic “Keeping the Narrative Going,” kicking off with the question:

Why settle for role of tragic victim when you could have that of courageous survivor?

It makes sense.

If storytelling offers the means for more effective communications in life and business, why wouldn’t the same techniques help doctors connect with their patients?

That’s the premise for what’s being called “narrative medicine,” pioneered by Dr. Rita Charon.

The Irish Times cites studies that have found a storytelling approach increases the likelihood that a patient will reveal his or her fears and concerns.

Another study in the article finds that it takes patients only 28 seconds on average to tell their story (obviously, they didn’t interview anyone in my family tree, which would have upped that average considerably).

Unfortunately, the same study reveals that doctors often interrupt after only 18 seconds.

To borrow from Scooby Doo, ruh-roh.

And how the heck are they measuring this stuff? The image of someone with a stopwatch behind one-way glass doesn’t quite seem right.

But I digress.

Dr. Charon points out:

If the doctor can’t engage with the patient’s personal story, the patient won’t tell the whole story or ask the most frightening questions and, therefore, will not feel heard. She suggests that incorrect diagnoses might be made followed by poor compliance from the patient, the search for a second opinion and a shallow and ineffective therapeutic relationship.

She even suggests that narrative medicine has the power to help doctors regain some of the public trust in medicine that has recently been called into question.

I go back to my post last year “Conversing Like a Real Human Being.”

How many doctors converse like real human beings?

I’m guessing “narrative medicine” has different levels of expertise – perhaps like the belt system in karate – so doctors can build up to more sophisticated techniques like empathy.

If that’s the case, my own GP is a yellow belt, giving him the benefit of the doubt.


  • Sarah Lafferty

    This is really interesting Lou. I visited my doctor a few months ago with a long-term recurring problem that she hadn’t figured out how to diagnose. I was quite taken aback on my last visit when she asked: “what do you think the problem is?” I have never had a doctor ask me this, but what followed was me telling her quite a long, detailed story that resulted in her finally providing the correct diagnosis. I now feel better than I have in 15 years. I guess storytelling is just what the doctor ordered!

  • Lou Hoffman

    If I wanted to stoop to the bad-pun level, I’d say what a great feel-good story.

    But I wont’ do that.

    Suffice to say, narrative medicine is making the rounds in London.


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