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How Storytelling Is Changing the Way Doctors Treat Illness

(Updated 6-10-19)

"Sayantani DasGupta, MD, who teaches narrative medicine at Columbia University, says the key to sharing your health history is thinking of it as a story," wrote Abigail Rasminsky in Oprah. "Choose the turning points that you want to highlight—the ups and downs you've experienced over time," says DasGupta, a pediatrician who teaches narrative medicine at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. "Who are the main characters? A supportive partner? An unsupportive boss? Mention the dramatic tensions. You might be concerned about meeting work deadlines, or caring for a sick parent. These details will help your doctor treat your illness in the context of your life. Finally, spill your fears. Maybe your mother died of a brain tumor and you're afraid you will, too. Your worries offer insight into your hesitancies and motivations."

Abby (my goddaughter) relates how Dr. Rita Charon, in the early '80s, stumbled on storytelling as a way to restore the human elements to medicine and became the founding director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. The idea is that young future medical practitioners read literature to develop the ability to empathize with and understand the world of their patients--and hence practice better medicine. Source: Abigail Rasminsky, How Storytelling Is Changing the Way Doctors Treat Illness (Oprah magazine, July 2012)

To learn more:
Mini-Biographies Help Clinicians Connect with Patients (Bram Sable-Smith, Kaiser Health News, 6-10-19) Bob Hall was one of the earliest patients to be interviewed for the My Life, My Story program at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014. "I'd never experienced something like that in a hospital before," Hall said. 'It had been a rocky recovery since his lung transplant three months earlier at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis. Hall was recovering from yet another surgery in March 2014 when a volunteer walked into his hospital room.
The volunteer wasn’t there to check on his lungs or breathing. Instead, she asked Hall if he wanted to tell his life story. Hall, who was 67, spoke to the volunteer for over an hour about everything from his time as a D student in high school (“I tell people I graduated in the top 95% of my class”) to his time in the military (“I thought the Marines were the toughest branch and I wanted to stop the communists”). He finished with the health problems that finally landed him in the hospital, and brought him to the present day.
Clinicians can access a lot of medical data through a patient’s electronic medical record, but there’s nowhere to learn about a patient’s personality or learn about her career, passions or values, said Thor Ringler, who has managed the My Life, My Story project since 2013. There is research that suggests when caregivers know their patients better, those patients have improved health outcomes....
A 2008 study found striking improvement in care when radiologists were simply provided with a photo of the patients whose scans they were reading. “They improved the accuracy of their radiology read,” said Heather Coats (who studies the health impact of biographical storytelling), “meaning less misspelled words, a better report that’s more detailed.” Current research is investigating whether storytelling might have a similar effect on clinical outcomes.'
Stories Are Good Medicine (Sayantani Dasgupta's blog: "Read two novels and call me in the morning". I particularly liked this entry: The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things: Body Acceptance in YA Literature
More than a Medical Record: Storytelling Helps Fill the Gaps Between Patients and Hospital Staff (Bram Sable-Smith, Morning Edition, NPR, Wisconsin Public Radio, 6-3-19) VA hospitals are pioneering the use of storytelling to strengthen the relationships patients have with doctors and nurses. Knowing a person's story helps caregivers relate to a patient. As part of a project called My Life, My Story, volunteers write up a patient's life story, a thousand-word biography, and attach it to the patient's medical record so any doctor or nurse can read it. Some research suggests that when caregivers know their patients better, those patients have improved health outcomes. A 2008 study "looked at what happened when radiologists were simply given a photo of the patients whose scans they were reading." The accuracy of their radiology read improved, with fewer misspelled words and a better, more detailed report.
The Right to Write About Patients (Benjamin Oldfield and Lauren Small, Hopkins Medicine, Winter 2017)
Sayantani Dasgupta's website
Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies edited by Sayantani DasGupta and Marsha Hurst
Narrative Medicine and Medical Narrative on my website Dying, Surviving, and Aging with Grace
and above all, read Abby's story in Oprah:
How Storytelling Is Changing The Way Doctors Treat Illness (by Abigail Rasminsky , Oprah Magazine, July 2012) .

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