Every patient has a story that goes beyond the symptoms they bring into the doctor's office.
Those stories can illuminate how a person became ill, the tipping point that compelled them to seek help, and, perhaps most importantly, the social challenges they face in getting better. Stories can offer the kind of contextual richness that promotes and nourishes empathy, prompting a provider to switch from asking "How can I treat this disease?" to "How can I help my patient?" The difference may seem subtle at first, but knowing how to get patients to share their stories can be transformative in improving patient care, say proponents of this approach called "narrative medicine."
Indu Voruganti, MS, now a third-year medical student at Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School, had just that type of realization. Voruganti had originally planned to head straight to medical school after completing her bachelor's studies in biology. After taking an undergraduate creative writing class, however, she decided to take a slight detour.
"I immediately felt [creative writing] exercised a unique part of my brain that seemed to offer a different lens [with which] to view health care," said Voruganti. "Then I learned there's a whole world of physicians out there who are also writers."
That lightbulb moment led Voruganti to enroll in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, an interdisciplinary master's program that seeks to improve clinical care through narratives. In a nutshell, narrative medicine draws on the study of art and literature to enhance students' listening and observation skills and to expand their view of patients to encompass more than just medical histories.