A new approach to healthcare is changing the way we talk about illness. More and more medical schools are beginning to teach their students how to use stories as part of patient treatment. This weekend, Wake Forest University's Humanities Institute is hosting a symposium on what's called narrative medicine. It's a way to help bridge the gap between doctors and patients.
When Jarred Smith was eight years old, he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. When he first received the news, the thing that stuck out in his mind was the idea of losing something he loved.
“I was playing football, and the doctors told me I couldn't play anymore. But, I really didn't know what was going on. I was too young,” he says.
Jarred had to undergo chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and radiation treatment. It was his life for three-and-a-half years. His mother, Cheryl Smith, says his care team at Brenner Children's Hospital was able to use sports as a way to help Jarred cope with his new reality.
"It was a team effort", she says. "And I know Jarred speaks of football a lot and different sports a lot. And I always remember him telling the doctors, 'we're a team.' And that allowed for some reassurance for him to be comfortable with the doctors. They found a personal connection with Jarred to talk about things other than the scientific stuff of medicine and what his body was going through."
This is what narrative medicine looks like. Harvard Medical School Doctor Rafael Campo is also a poet and a writer. He's one of the keynote speakers at this weekend's symposium, and he says the practice can give doctors and patients a shared framework for talking about illness.
“Ultimately, by understanding how patients relate their stories, we gain a deeper appreciation of what it means to live with an illness and [it allows us] to be able to treat it more effectively.”
It's a way to connect a patient's chart, for example, with that patient's story. Not only can it be used in pediatric or long-term cases like Jarred's, Campo says narrative medicine is a good tool in the ER as well.
“I think in some ways, in those sort of acute interactions where perhaps you're not going to have another visit with that patient, the story in that particular moment takes on even more meaning.”
Narrative medicine isn't without its critics though. Campo says he's met with skepticism from his colleagues, who already have full plates. He hears things like, “You really want me to actually read a poem with a patient? Are you crazy? Are you really going to say that we should swap stories? I mean this is, it's impossible.”
But Campo says it's worth it. And, in fact it's making things more efficient for his practice. He can quickly find the most important information about a patient faster.
"I am able to sit down with a patient and right away get to what is at the heart of what's going on with them at that particular moment, at that particular visit," he says. "I don't have to ask the ten, you know, throat clearing questions that are very closed-ended and directed."
Narrative medicine is being incorporated into curriculum around the country, at places like Columbia and Ohio State. And it's gaining traction at other medical schools, like Wake Forest University Medical School, where the goal is to teach active listening and empathy.
For Jarred Smith and his family, this has all been a key part of his care throughout his treatment. He's fourteen now and three years cancer-free. He says cancer is now part of his narrative.
“It's always going to be there, but the story'll keep going.”
Correction: An earlier broadcast of this story indicated that Wake Forest University's Pro Humanitate Institute is hosting the symposium. It is The Wake Forest University Humanities Institute hosting Story, Health, and Healing: A Symposium on Narrative in Medicine.