Narrative Medicine: What is it and how can it help me?
By Marion McCrary, MD

By Marion McCrary MD

You know those quotes you see in big letters on a slide show or on a social media post that grab your attention and make you think. Like, “Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller, waiting to be released” (author Robin Moore).

You are inspired to think how it applies to you. You get curious.

What if you had that same curiosity listening to a story told by a colleague or a patient, listening to a poem or piece of prose, or looking at a painting? How can this spoken, written, or visual story help reveal and heal? How can this narrative be a form of medicine?

Columbia University describes narrative medicine as “an interdisciplinary field that brings powerful narrative skills of radical listening and creativity from the humanities and the arts to address the needs of all who seek and deliver health care. It enables patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be heard, to be recognized, and to be valued, improving the delivery of health care. This evolving transdisciplinary field of inquiry addresses issues of structural inequality and social justice in healthcare.”

These narrative medicine sessions can be shared 1:1 experiences or can occur in groups. Often there is a “close reading” where all participants listen or look at a piece of art. Then there is reflection on what is just heard. This reflection can be written or spoken. There can also be a prompt or question that follows so that the listener can expand on their thoughts in the context of their personal answer.

In this space, you can bring in the stressors of the day, the clinic, and the world. This is a way to process these powerful emotions and start regulating them.

This strategy can be used in groups of trainees, colleagues across disciplines that make up a team, or with collections of patients.

What could someone get out of participating in a narrative medicine experience?

1. Narrative Medicine can prevent or reverse the emotional exhaustion seen with burnout. By implementing proven frameworks for observation/listening, reflecting, and writing in a group, stories can heal.

2. Narrative Medicine can improve team cohesion because sharing stories leads to a greater connection and sense of inclusion and belonging. It also leads to facilitation of meaning making through the act of reflection.

3. Narrative Medicine can augment your skills as a healthcare professional. Practicing deep listening skills can enhance your attention in the exam room.

4. Narrative Medicine helps you shed your fear of something new. In this environment, a spark of curiosity and creativity can remind you of your younger days and inspire you to share your voice. It is a safe space for exploration.

5. Narrative Medicine helps improve emotional intelligence by encouraging personal awareness and learning. Stories reveal. It also facilitates the skill of empathy, the ability to observe and understand the feelings and needs of others.

6. Narrative medicine enhances community. In groups of physicians, sharing of stories leads to a greater connection.

Want to try it out? See if you can take advantage of the benefits of narrative medicine?

Columbia University has several virtual opportunities each month to see what it is like. Sign up and see how this intriguing experience of listening, reflecting, and sharing can help you. Let out that natural-born storyteller that is inside of you.

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