The Cult of Narrative Medicine/ October 23, 2010

I am writing from and about the Holy Land of Narrative Medicine. Yesterday I began a three day intensive workshop in Narrative Medicine with Rita Charon, MD and her colleagues at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. Narrative medicine, for the uninitiated, is the practice of health care within narrative competence. A good quality patient-provider interaction is one of telling stories. The patient tells the story of his or her illness or health need, and the provider has the ability to listen to and validate the patient’s story, as well as to be self-reflective about the patient-provider relationship—the story of the health care experience. Authors/books that are within the ‘new genre’ of narrative medicine include Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People In the Age of AIDS Rachel Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal,Theresa Brown’s Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything In Between and, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.

I like the approach of narrative medicine, and my own book that I am writing, Catching Homelessness, falls in the genre of narrative medicine. I also like Rita Charon and her colleagues here who teach within their new Narrative Medicine graduate program. They all seem like nice and humble people. I am also skeptical, and wonder if narrative medicine isn’t taking itself a bit too seriously—as if it will cure all the ills of our health care system. As I sat through the various workshops, lectures, participant sharings of why they had come—many from all over the world-including from Paris and somewhere in Argentina (there are 40 of us disciples) —I couldn’t help but wonder at the strange cult-like atmosphere of it all. People said they had “found themselves,” “stumbled upon narrative medicine and now I’m happy—just happy,” among other things, and there was a reverential attitude towards Rita especially as if she were the high priestess of this new cult. When she gives a talk, Rita seems fond of repeating “Do you see?” while leaning on the lectern, or stepping back with hands folded in prayer. She obviously is passionate about this stuff. I have two more days of this workshop to be converted.

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