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Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in "narrative medicine"

In the November issue of The Lancet, Chris Adrian, MD, postulates about what might be called "narrative medicine." How do stories and poems alter our experience of caregiving, illness, and suffering? Does literature "help"?

Adrian, who is trained in both creative writing and medicine, thinks that artistic expressions of experience do bring something to clinical care, whether care is experienced on the giving or the receiving end. He also finds these benefits ineffable, impossible to quantify, study, or prove, and all the more powerful for it. He writes:

Lately I feel a strong, anxious conviction that writing and reading fiction and poetry might in fact execute some kind of alleviating change upon our suffering, even in the world of the hospital, upon that portion of our suffering related to illness and death. I can't begin to argue logically or systematically how it actually does this. Accidentally or miraculously is about as far as I get when I try.

The reason literature, or perhaps art more generally, complements clinical practice is because it communicates in an entirely different language that speaks to different aspects of the human experience. Adrian ponders a line from W.H. Auden's  "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which reads, "For poetry makes nothing happen…" and speculates:

…which is not by any means actually nothing, but instead a domain of activity so estranged from our degraded understanding of what human beings can do in the world that [Auden] had to call it Nothing to say what he meant.

Adrian, who is on faculty at the Columbia University Medical Center and an accomplished author, feels that medicine doesn't train doctors how to interact with the less-scientific aspects of humans experiencing illness, injury, and suffering. There's a gap or an absence in most medical care, and that's where storytelling can step in. Columbia's Program in Narrative Medicine, which originated in 2000, is dedicated to this idea. It draws participants from a vast array of fields, and inspired the International Network of Narrative Medicine. As its website states, "The care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence is a model for humane and effective medical practice."

Storytelling in medicine isn't just for medical practitioners to engage in. Adrian's musing was inspired by a new book by Carol Levine, Living in the Land of Limbo: Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving, which collects the stories of family members who dedicate uncountable resources to caring for sick loved ones. Consider also the longstanding role of the hospital chaplain, and the recent proliferation of doulas, both of whom are specialized professionals who work "next-to" medicine, absorbing emotions, anxieties, and fears, and providing nurturance. And then, of course, there are the patients themselves, who in Adrian's words might benefit from "art as a considered clinical intervention... very nearly like prescribing a story."

Previously: Intersection of arts and medicine a benefit to both, report finds, Literature and medicine at life’s end, Thoughts on the arts and humanities in shaping a medical career and Physicians turn to books to better understand patients, selves
Photo by Alex

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