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Stories in the Service of Making a Better Doctor

The New York Times (New York, NY) , October 24, 2008

Summary:

While it has long been understood that clinical practice influenced the youthful writing of doctor-authors like Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, there is now emerging evidence that exposure to literature and writing during residency training can influence how young doctors approach their clinical work. By bringing short stories, poems and essays into hospital wards and medical schools, educators hope to encourage fresh thinking and help break down the wall between doctors and patients.

“We’re teaching the humanities to our residents, and it’s making them better doctors,” said Dr. Richard Panush, a rheumatologist and chairman of the department of medicine at Saint Barnabas.

The idea of combining literature and medicine — or narrative medicine as it is sometimes called — has played a part in medical education for over 40 years. Studies have repeatedly shown that such literary training can strengthen and support the compassionate instincts of doctors.

Dr. Rita Charon and her colleagues at the program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found, for example, that narrative medicine training offered doctors opportunities to practice skills in empathy. Doctors exposed to literary works were more willing to adopt another person’s perspective, even after as few as three or four one-hour workshops.

“Narrative medicine changed my entire approach to medicine,” said Dr. Abigail Ford, a senior resident in obstetrics and gynecology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia who studied under Dr. Charon as a medical student. “As a doctor you are really a co-author of patients’ experiences and need to hear their story and take it on.”

Subjects Covered: medicine


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