Narrative medicine: forming closer bonds with patients

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By Anastasia Netrunenko Contributing Writer What makes one a good listener? As human beings, we often consider ourselves born with the inherent ability to connect to others in their time of need. Most of us however, when listening, listen for the dilemma and strive to “fix” it, a natural mark of human behavior, as we are driven to alleviate the very thing that causes us distress. While both intent and the outcome are important, in the process of problem-solving, we forget to “witness” the person speaking, focusing on the words being spoken and not the emotion, intonation and general person, thus creating a disconnect between the speaker and the listener. One such example of this disconnect is heavily present in the medical community, between patients and their providers, between physicians and even between hospital staff. Narrative Medicine, a new field of study founded by M.D. PhD. Rita Charon, challenges the current status quo by advocating a new model of communication, incorporating the humanities and social sciences, addressing the narrative of both caregivers and patients. In doing so, the focus thus shifts to the experience of the speaker, allowing the listener to “witness” the individual and their experience as they are. Research has shown that there is a growing demand for qualitative approaches to clinical research, ones that work in harmony with the quantitative ways that are currently practiced in the field of doctoring. As such, in the end, the program/practice works to humanize the heavily scientific field, utilizing literary analysis and language patterns to imbue its students with the ability to properly recognize and interpret the narrative of the patient, thus being able to effectively treat them. In an effort to raise awareness about the program, Columbia University hosts workshops in New York City. Centering on a specific theme, each workshop incorporates the practice of narratives to illustrate their role in successful communication, medical or otherwise. In the most recent workshop, entitled Race, Violence, Justice: The Need for Narrative, keynote speakers Mindy Fullilove, George Yancy, Topher Sanders, Sayantani DasGupta, and Rita Charon herself, spoke not only about medicine, but social change, racism and sexism as well. From the onset of the workshop, the unspoken request for openness and for objective listening was acknowledged and understood by all. Some questioned the change in topic, for after all, why would the discussion center on racism and sexism, when the purpose of the workshop was to learn about medicine. Comprised of mainly medical professionals however, the aspect of medicine within the workshop was clear: understanding narrative, within the context of human interaction in society, especially intersectionally, not simply in a medical setting, was what truly mattered. Inspired by the program and its mission, two Minerva sponsored workshop seminars, to be held in Beuth House this Spring are in the works, as well as an FYP course for the coming Fall term. With a guiding hand from Columbia University, the course will explore the methodology of the narrative, in the context of medicine and otherwise. For in the end, if we are able to incorporate narratives, whether literary or verbal, we learn to listen, respect, understand, and in many ways connect, we become better communicators and caregivers. Special thanks to the Learn Something, Teach Something Committee, the Intellectual Enrichment Grant Committee, the Modern Languages Department, and the Mellon “Our Shared Humanities” Grant for making it possible for me to attend these workshops in support of my thesis and professional development.

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