Narrative medicine

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Narrative Medicine is a discipline of applying the skill of analyzing literature to interviewing patients.[1] A basic premise of Narrative Medicine is that how a patient speaks about their illness or problem is similar to a story in literature in that the account has a "plot" (how they relate what is going on) with "characters" (themselves and others in their lives) and is filled with "metaphors" (picturesque, emotional and symbolic ways of speaking), and becoming conversant in literary stories facilitates understanding the stories which patients bring.[2] Narrative Medicine is a medical approach that utilizes patients' narratives in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing. Beyond the attempt to reach a more accurate diagnosis,[3] it aims to address the relational and psychological dimensions that occur in tandem with physical illness, with an attempt to deal with the individual stories of patients.[4] In doing this, narrative medicine aims not only to validate the experience of the patient, but also to encourage creativity and self-reflection in the physician.

Two first year medical students at Lewis Katz School of Medicine writing/journaling about their experiences in the hospital.

History of the development of Narrative Medicine[edit]

In 1910, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created the Flexner Report, which set out to redefine medical educational practices. In this report, it argued that the proper goal of medicine is "an attempt to fight the battle against disease most advantageously to the patient." Flexner wrote that "the practitioner deals with facts of two categories. Chemistry, physics, biology enable him to apprehend one set; he needs a different apperceptive and appreciative apparatus to deal with other more subtle elements. Specific preparation is in this direction much more difficult; one must rely for the requisite insight and sympathy on a varied and enlarging cultural experience."[5] In the late 20th century the emergence of narrative medicine came as an effort to re-emphasize an aspect of wider cultural elements in medicine.

From the 1990s, physicians like Rachel Naomi Remen[6] and Rita Charon, who also holds a doctorate in English literature, argued that medical practice should be structured around the narratives of patients.[7] In the year 2000, Rita Charon, first publicized the term "Narrative Medicine" to describe a method of using what she calls "narrative competence," which is "the capacity to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by stories of illness."[8][9]

Method of Narrative Medicine[edit]

The teaching strategy of Narrative Medicine typically involves the three steps of close reading of a text, followed by a writing assignment of personal reflection about the text, and then sharing and discussing the personal reflection.[10] With the development of "narrative competence," the goal is then to approach a patient's situation with more accuracy in understanding and with greater empathy, in order to help the patient and clinician to work together.

Close reading

Close reading is a technique in teaching literature wherein the formal aspects of a text are studied. As an example, students are encouraged to the read a text "for its information, ambiguity, complexity, texture, and mood as well as for its plot." These methods can be adapted to film, art and music in the form of "slow looking"[11] and "close listening."[12]

Creative writing

Following the close reading of a text, the student writes in a creative way what the encounter with the text meant for them, which "unleashes the curiosity and imagination of the writer."


The Narrative Medicine faculty then applies "close reading" to the creative, reflective writing by the student, in order to more deeply understand what was communicated by the student.[13]

Allied use of narrative in medicine[edit]

The term "Narrative Medicine" specifically refers to the training in interpreting literature and then applying that skill to understanding the accounts which patients tell. Associated fields of the use of narrative in medicine is called "Narrative-based Medicine", and also the more wide field of narrative in general.

Narrative-based Medicine[edit]

A main proponent of Narrative-based Medicine is the English General Practice doctor John Launer who also holds a degree in English literature. His approach to understanding the stories which patients relay to doctors comes from an orientation of Family therapy counseling wherein patients are invited to expand on and explore new directions in the accounts of their illness.[14]

Narrative in medicine[edit]

A more broad field is the use of narrative in general in helping doctors and patients deepen the understanding of the ways of relating to illness and healing. In the 1990s and early 21st century, this approach is exemplified by the American doctor Lewis Mehl-Madrona[15] and the British doctor Trisha Greenhalgh.[16]

Educational programs[edit]

A number of schools in the United States offer advanced classes in narrative medicine.

  • Columbia University has developed educational programs for the field of narrative medicine.
    • Interprofessional Education: The Division of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center collaborates with all the clinical programs at the medical center, in addition to leading the "Interprofessional Education" programming.
    • Rounds and Workshops: In addition, the division hosts numerous events and trainings, including "monthly rounds and weekend intensive workshops" for the public.
    • Master of Science: Columbia University created the "Master of Science in Narrative Medicine" program in 2009, making it the first graduate program devoted strictly to narrative medicine.
    • Textbook: In 2016, the first textbook in narrative medicine was published: "The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine".
    • Certification Program: In 2017, an asynchronous online "Certification program in Narrative Medicine" began.[17]
  • The Lewis Katz School of Medicine has a Narrative Medicine Program run by Mike Vitez, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, and Naomi Rosenberg, an Emergency Medicine physician. It launched in 2016. The program's goal is to protect, support, and nourish the humanism that brings physicians into the profession, and to teach the skills of narrative that help at the bedside and beyond. The program has curricular and extracurricular components. Reflective writing forms a significant component of the Professional Identity Formation thread in the MD curriculum. Electives in medical humanities range from exploration of narrative medicine to photo storytelling to improvisational acting. Students also conceive and complete individual or group projects for elective credit under the guidance of the faculty. Extracurricular activities include a wide array of writing and narrative medicine workshops—some led by students—for students, residents, and hospital staff. "Narrative Medicine Talks" is a regular speaker series, and the program hosts fall and spring Story Slams for the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and Temple Hospital Community. On December 7, 2019, LKSOM hosted its inaugural Narrative Medicine Conference.[18]
  • Montefiore Medical Center is the academic medical center and University Hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine. This medical center created a program in Narrative Medicine as a subset of the Department of Family and Social Medicine. Residents at this school attend programs where they learn how to use personal narrative to enhance empathy, as well as topics including stress, loss, and balance.[19]
  • The Ohio State University Humanities Institute is also supporting the multidisciplinary initiative of narrative medicine. This program runs concurrently with their other undergraduate and graduate programs, where students "strive to develop narrative competence that enables them to deliver care that is not only more empathetic and compassionate, but also more effective."[20]
  • The University of California Irvine College of Medicine has created an Integrative Medicine Program within the Department of Family Medicine.[21]
  • In the year 2020 the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine began a Master of Science program in Narrative Medicine.[22]
  • In 2011, Western University created the Narrative Medicine Initiative (NMI) and has incorporated narrative medicine into the undergraduate, postgraduate, and continuing medical education departments. They work to answer questions such as "How does the art of storytelling improve health care education and the experience of patient care?". Western holds regular (at least annual) Narrative medicine rounds where local patients and physicians share their stories of disease and illness, with a focus on how the stories will improve physician's ability to handle future stories.[23]
  • Lenoir-Rhyne University has established the Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative, with the slogan "Heeding the call for narrative in a fragmented world." This program offers graduate-level and certification courses in several narrative training disciplines, one of which is narrative medicine.[24]
  • Saybrook University takes a broad approach to narrative medicine through their mind-body medicine program. This seeks to approve the mind-body approach to health and wellness as a way to improve quality of life for patients.[25]
  • Misericordia University requires a course in narrative medicine for all students in their Medical and Health Humanities major.[26]

This growing field of narrative medicine extends beyond the United States:

  • The British Medical Journal began adding their own writing seminars to promote this type of narrative in its emerging physicians.[citation needed]
  • At University of Southern Denmark narrative medicine is a mandatory course to follow for all undergraduate medical students.[27]
  • In Italy the Healthcare Area of ISTUD ("Institute of Management Studies") holds a Master in Applied Narrative Medicine courses, addressed to health care professionals[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thernstrom, Melanie (18 April 2004). "The Writing Cure". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  2. ^ Samuel, Sigal (5 March 2020). "This doctor is taking aim at our broken medical system, one story at a time". Vox. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  3. ^ Rosti, G. (2017). "Role of narrative-based medicine in proper patient assessment". Supportine Care in Cancer. 25 (Suppl 1): 3–6. doi:10.1007/s00520-017-3637-4. PMC 5357296. PMID 28220317.
  4. ^ "Narrative Medicine | NYU School of Law". Retrieved 2016-03-01.
  5. ^ Flexner, Abraham (1910), Medical Education in the United States and Canada: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (PDF), Bulletin No. 4., New York City: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, pp. 23–26, OCLC 9795002, retrieved January 13, 2022
  6. ^ "Rachel Naomi Remen — the Difference Between Fixing and Healing".
  7. ^ Charon R (2001-10-17). "Narrative medicine: A model for empathy, reflection, profession, and trust". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 286 (15): 1897–1902. doi:10.1001/jama.286.15.1897. ISSN 0098-7484. PMID 11597295.
  8. ^ Charon, R. (2007). "What to Do with Stories". Canadian Family Physician. 53 (8): 1265–1267. PMC 1949238. PMID 17872831.
  9. ^ Adler, Margot (28 October 2003). "Stories in Medicine: Doctors-in-Training Record a Different Type of Patient History". National Public Radio. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  10. ^ Milota, M. M.; Van Thiel, G. J. M. W.; Van Delden, J. J. M. (2019). "Narrative medicine as a medical education tool: a systematic review". Medical Teacher. 41 (7): 802–810. doi:10.1080/0142159X.2019.1584274. PMID 30983460. S2CID 115199182. Retrieved 11 January 2022.
  11. ^ "A guide to slow looking". Tate. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  12. ^ "What is close listening?". The Open University. Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  13. ^ Charon, R.; Hermann, N.; Devlin, M. J. (2016). "Close Reading and Creative Writing in Clinical Education: Teaching Attention, Representation, and Affiliation". Academic Medicine. 91 (3): 345–350. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000000827. PMC 4721945. PMID 26200577.
  14. ^ Zaharias, G. (2018). "What is narrative-based medicine?". Canadian Family Physician. 64 (3): 176–180. PMC 5851389. PMID 29540381.
  15. ^ "Narrative Medicine Heals Bodies and Souls". UTNE reader. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  16. ^ Greenhalgh, T.; Hurwitz, B. (1999). "Why study narrative?". British Medical Journal. 318 (7175): 48–50. doi:10.1136/bmj.318.7175.48. PMC 1114541. PMID 9872892.
  17. ^ "Columbia University Narrative Medicine". Columbia University. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  18. ^ "Lewis Katz School of Medicine Narrative Medicine Program". Lewis Katz School of Medicine. Retrieved 7 December 2021.
  19. ^ "Narrative Medicine Department of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine". Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  20. ^ "Narrative Medicine". OSE Humanities Collaboratory. Retrieved 2022-01-10.
  21. ^ "Integrative Medicine Program | Department of Family Medicine | University of California, Irvine". Retrieved 2016-03-01.
  22. ^ "Narrative medicine seeks the story behind the illness". ACP Internist. Retrieved 2022-01-10.
  23. ^ "Stories of Illness and Health - Public Humanities at Western - Western University". Retrieved 2019-02-12.
  24. ^ "Creative Writing, MFA Program Requirements". IR Creative Writing, MFA Program. Retrieved 2022-01-10.
  25. ^ "Mind-Body Medicine, Ph.D." Saybrook University catalog. Retrieved 2022-01-10.
  26. ^ "Medical and Health Humanities at Misericordia University". Retrieved 2019-02-12.
  27. ^ "Narrative Medicine". SDU. Retrieved 2020-05-11.
  28. ^ "Master in Medicina Narrativa Applicata". Medicina Narrativa. Retrieved 2022-01-10.

Further reading[edit]

  • Charon, Rita (2008). Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, Oxford University Press.
  • Charon, Rita et al. (2016). The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, Oxford University Press.
  • Greenhalgh, Trisha; editor (1998). Narrative Based Medicine, BMJ books.
  • Hühn, Peter et al., editors (2014). Handbook of Narratology, De Gruyter.
  • Hunter, Kathryn Montgomery (1991). Doctors' Stories: The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge, Princeton University Press.
  • Launer, John (2018). Narrative-Based Practice in Health and Social Care: Conversations Inviting Change, 2nd Edition, Routledge.
  • Marini, Maria Giulia (2016). Narrative Medicine: Bridging the Gap between Evidence-Based Care and Medical Humanities, Springer.
  • Marini, Maria Giulia (2019). Languages of Care in Narrative Medicine: Words, Space and Time in the Healthcare Ecosystem, Springer.
  • Mehl-Madrona, Lewis (2007). Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Bear & Company.
  • Mehl-Madrona, Lewis (2010). Healing the Mind through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry, Bear & Company.
  • Robertson, Colin; editor (2016). Storytelling in Medicine: How Narrative can Improve Practice 1st Edition , Routledge.

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