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Good healthcare is all about storytelling

What if we went to the doctor expecting to share not only our symptoms, but our wider stories of health and history?

I was reading a magazine recently, and the phrase narrative medicine caught my eye. That’s not quite the right expression. “Eye-catching” sounds blinding. This phrase caught me like a burr, a seed pod that turns up on socks after hiking. It scratched at me and travelled with me. I turned it over in my mind, wondering about it, before turning to the internet to find out more.

It seems the discipline of narrative medicine was founded at Columbia University in 2000 and is described as “clinical practice fortified by complex narrative skills that equip healthcare professionals to recognise, absorb, interpret and be moved to action by patients’ and colleagues’ stories of illness.” Practitioners use methods rooted in, among other practises, literary theory, narratology and cultural studies, seeking to increase the accuracy and scope of clinicians’ knowledge of their patients and to deepen therapeutic partnerships. Listening to stories deepens understanding.

As a writer, I know this, and I trust this, so I was intrigued to see how it might apply to healthcare as well as fiction. The longer I sit with a set of characters, the more deeply I wonder about them. So what if doctors were trained to listen deeply to our stories? Not only to diagnose quickly and correctly, but so that they might understand the deeper contexts of illness? What if we went to the doctor expecting to share not only our symptoms, but our wider stories of health and history?

‘How Are You?’

It takes trust to express honestly how we’ve been, and we often glide past the question too quickly. Oh, I’m fine. Can’t complain. But when we know we’re being heard, we might take a longer run at the answer. How we are is who we’ve been. Our understanding of the present is deeply anchored in our experiences of the past. That’s how stories work. The beginning sets up what happens next, and what came before gets tangled up with both our present and futures.

Expressing this can feel like vulnerable work. Did we say too much? Did we get the beginning right? Remember the story in the right order? And, if it’s about family histories, then whose stories are these to tell?

One of the things that intrigues me about the idea of narrative medicine is that it seems to involve the practitioner’s own examined experiences as well as their colleagues’ stories of illness. The circle widens. Deep listening requires personal involvement, too. I hear my story in your story. No one is isolated.

There is an echo of the incarnation in this kind of listening. God, as Helper and Healer, asks us to share our lives in prayer. God, as Christ among us, brings his lived human story into our daily experience. God, as Spirit, opens our ears so that through shared story, we may all find faith and new life. God makes us into parable people, who lean into the unexpected and listen to learn. I think this is the work of the church. We are continually learning how to tell our shared stories in healthy, healing ways, and how to listen deeply together when others speak. Together, our stories are powerful, and, like seeds, they carry the future curled inside them.

This article first appeared in our January 10, 2022 issue under the title “A healthy new year.” If you like that title better, maybe you’d enjoy a print subscription! Check out your subscription options here.

  • Katie Munnik is an Ottawa writer living in Cardiff with her Spouse and three growing children.

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