The ability to learn your patient’s story from their words is the essential skill for developing a comprehensive understanding. This is crucial for accurate diagnosis and for establishing a therapeutic bond with each patient.
Storytelling is a uniquely human endeavor that can promote understanding, empathy, insight, connection and emotional catharsis. As clinicians and medical educators we teach our trainees the value of listening to the patient’s actual words and specific way of describing his or his symptoms. The ability to put together the patient’s “story” from the words the patient says is the essential skill of history-taking, and one that is crucial for accurate diagnosis and for establishing a therapeutic bond with each patient.
It’s also clear that “narrative medicine,” focused on the humanistic aspect of the experience of illness, can help physicians in promoting self-reflection and processing of the powerful intimate human encounters that doctors and patients share together. Indeed, in view of its benefits in protecting against physician burnout and being a vehicle for self-care, many medical centers have developed programs in narrative medicine that facilitate physicians writing and speaking about their experiences with patients in a supportive community forum.
In her recent JAMA essay, “Sharing and Healing Through Storytelling in Medicine,” Emily Silverman, MD, takes a broader view on storytelling in medicine that brings these two aspects of medical storytelling together. She writes that storytelling “is not just an act of self-healing; it may actually create better physicians.”
Silverman contends that narrative storytelling sharpens communication skills that lead to improved patient health and illness education. She further argues that physicians who are better storytellers will be more effective in demystifying medical illness for the lay public and will be better equipped to advocate for the healthcare needs of the public in general.
We’re living at a time when there is broad concern that the dizzying pace and pressures of medical practice frequently leave both patients and physicians feeling there isn’t enough time to get to know the patient’s narrative. Silverman reminds us that storytelling in medicine is not only vital to the well-being of physicians, but also to the well-being of the patients and public we serve.