“We can define ‘narrative’ medicine as the medicine practiced with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness”.
This is how this innovative discipline is described by Rita Charon, a professor of clinical medicine and literature scholar, author of the well-known book “Narrative Medicine. Honoring the Stories of Illness”.
Charon created and is still the director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Colombia University, a study course based on rather unconventional assumptions:
“A good physician has to nurture the relationship with art, be it literature, poetry, theater or painting. Physicians need to have an awareness of the humanities in order to understand the narratives of their patients, to embrace those imaginary scenarios that make up their experience. It is a new concept of medicine, which takes an ancient tradition and mixes it with the study of language and the visual arts”.
According to this innovative vision, the stories that patients tell of their illnesses become an integral part of their therapy, together with drugs and the usual clinical interventions.
Placing narratives at the service of medicine means discovering the power of storytelling in therapeutic relationships. Hence, the ability of the physician to listen becomes fundamental, who must also be able to master the formal and psychological mechanisms included in the narrative.
The result is a training process that differs from traditional scientific training, because Charon teaches healthcare professionals to analyze texts carefully, to write in a conscious manner and to have a knowledge of the great works of literature.
It is to be noted straight away that this is not an intellectual exercise. It is anything but. Charon uses narrative medicine to offer more efficient care and to improve therapeutic results. She aims to build specific knowledge, capable of influencing not only therapeutic relationships “but professional training and the application of ethics, and also structural aspects, such as medical procedures, economics, access to care and safety”.
The ability to read both an illness and the patient requires time, skill and an authentic knowledge of individual experience, in addition to clinical protocols. This is an essential task: otherwise, according to Charon, medicine runs the risk of being limited to the mere application of techniques and protocols, which may achieve their goal, but do not cure the patient properly. Because sick people “need physicians who can understand their diseases, treat their medical problems, and accompany them through their illnesses”.