Narrative Medicine

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Narrative Medicine with Dr Rita Charon.

Essays from leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond

Part of the BBC's NHS at 70 season of special programmes

On the basis that "fiction reveals truth that reality obscures", in 2000 Dr Rita Charon founded the pioneering Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, which started to teach literature and creative writing to medical students. "Narrative Medicine" was the term she coined to describe the capacity to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by stories of illness. Simply - it's medicine practised by someone who knows what to do with stories.

This idea has been taken up by medical schools all over the world, including Britain, as a way to help health professionals grow in empathy and reflection.
Narrative medicine draws patients, doctors, nurses, and therapists together to re-imagine a health care based on trust and trustworthiness, humility, and mutual recognition. The goal is to make connections - if an occupational therapist is to help the stroke patient find herself in a newly changed body, it takes true imagination, empathy and insight. And for Rita, actively looking to understand what a patient is telling you, in the way you might closely read a work of literature, is the way in.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, in The Essay this week, Dr Rita Charon takes a different book each day as a starting point for her own very personal reflections on her experiences as a physician with the people she treats. These books become doorways into a different reality, and shed light on the different outcomes of illness - acceptance, death, healing. Each programme is a meditation on our changing minds and bodies and the passing of time.

Rita Charon is Professor of Clinical Medicine and Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has recently been appointed the inaugural chair of a new Department in Medical Humanities and Ethics at Columbia's medical school.

She directs the Narrative Medicine curriculum for Columbia's medical school and teaches literature, narrative ethics, and life-telling, both in the medical centre and Columbia's Department of English. Her literary scholarship focuses on the novels and tales of Henry James. Her research projects centre on the outcomes of training health care professionals in narrative competence and the development of narrative clinical routines to increase the capacity for clinical recognition in medical practice

She has published and lectured extensively on the ways in which narrative training helps to increase empathy and reflection in health professionals and students. She is author of "Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness and co-editor of Psychoanalysis" and "Narrative Medicine and Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics.".