A FEW weeks ago, I received an email from the Danish psychiatrist Per Bech that had an unexpected attachment: a story about a patient. I have been writing a book about antidepressants — how well they work and how we know. Dr. Bech is an innovator in clinical psychometrics, the science of measuring change in conditions like depression. Generally, he forwards material about statistics.
Now he had shared a recently published case vignette. It concerned a man hospitalized at age 30 in 1954 for what today we call severe panic attacks. The treatment, which included "narcoanalysis" (interviewing aided by a "truth serum"), afforded no relief. On discharge, the man turned to alcohol. Later, when sober again, he endured increasing phobias, depression and social isolation.
Four decades later, in 1995, suicidal thoughts brought this anxious man back into the psychiatric system, at age 70. For the first time, he was put on an antidepressant, Zoloft. Six weeks out, both the panic attacks and the depression were gone. He resumed work, entered into a social life and remained well for the next 19 years — until his death.
If the narrative was striking, so was its inclusion in a medical journal. In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails. As a writer who likes to tell stories, I've been made painfully aware of the shift. The inclusion of a single anecdote in a research overview can lead to a reprimand, for reliance on storytelling.
My own view is that we need storytelling in medicine, need it for any number of reasons.