Will listening better to patients’ stories improve healthcare?



Rita Charon, Columbia professor of clinical medicine, has dedicated herself to helping patients and health professionals talk and listen to each other. Too often, she feels, patients’ symptoms are addressed in isolation without the personal and social contexts of their lives. She believes sickness unfolds in stories, and a physician's job is to absorb and decipher these stories before acting on them.

To bring the full person into the treatment room, Charon and her colleagues founded at Columbia in 2000 Narrative Medicine, a new discipline combining literary theory, philosophy, narrative ethics, and the creative arts. Focused on the structural elements of stories, Narrative Medicine helps clinicians develop listening skills. In 2009, Columbia became the first school to offer a graduate degree in Narrative Medicine, and many graduates have gone on to professional training in medicine.

An important part of Narrative Medicine is how doctors respond to patients’ stories. Charon developed a writing exercise, “keeping a parallel chart,” in which the physician writes his or her own feelings about the patient. The chart helps doctors process complex feelings of empathy and grief to better connect to their patients.

Recently, Charon and fellow faculty members published The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, which articulates the ideas, methods, and practices of the discipline, guiding readers in how to recognize patients' suffering to help them through the chaos of illness. Learn more.

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