Stories in Medicine

Storytelling (C)“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in this world.” ~ Terry Pratchett

Listen to today’s post on the go or continue reading below …


I consider myself to be “multipassionate”, a phrase Marie Forleo has cleverly used in her video Should You Combine Your Many Passions or Choose One?. As it turns out, many of the things I am most passionate about intersect and overlap. For instance, as you may know, I am passionate about stress management and burnout prevention; creativity as a form of stress management and professional enhancement in both medical education and practice; the power of empathy, not just in helping other physicians and professionals, but in mankind as a whole; and about people’s life stories and the humanity that interconnects us through them. These passions have in turn not only lead me to believe in both the power of, but also promote, storytelling in medicine to reduce stress and enhance empathy.

Stories in medicine

Stories in medicine impact us all because they are our stories. This past week, I read an article by a well-known physician writer Danielle Ofri, Storytelling in Medicine: the Passion and the Peril, where she presents the desire and benefits for physicians to write about the stories they encounter in medicine in a respectful way. As she says: “So much of medicine is about stories – the ones we hear, the ones we tell, the ones we participate in – that it is no accident that doctors and nurses are attracted to stories.”

For me, the stories in medicine have become a focal part of the profession. Even outside of medicine, I am quickly intrigued by the people I meet and the stories they tell. As it turns out, stories can actually change our brains, connecting us and conjuring empathy within us for others.

Medical humanities

Understandably so, the arts and humanities are becoming increasingly woven into both medical education and practice. Many medical schools now have programs related to the medical arts and humanities such as the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto. This past winter, I gave a talk to residents about creativity and found this descriptive definition from Baylor University that really captures what the medical humanities means:

“We define the term ‘medical humanities’ broadly to include an interdisciplinary field of humanities (literature, philosophy, ethics, history and religion), social science (anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology), and the arts (literature, theater, film, and visual arts) and their application to medical education and practice.

The humanities and arts provide insight into the human condition, suffering, personhood, our responsibility to each other, and offer a historical perspective on medical practice. Attention to literature and the arts helps to develop and nurture skills of observation, analysis, empathy, and self-reflection — skills that are essential for humane medical care.”

Clearly, integrating the humanities into medical education is beneficial, and in particular, storytelling can both improve communication skills and enhance empathy. One of my first memories of a patient story in medical school left an indelible mark on me, and I can say with certainty, being able to artistically communicate the story would have been beneficial to me.

One of my first nights on-call as a clinical clerk, I was involved the emergency arrival of a woman who had just delivered her 10th child, rupturing her uterus in childbirth, leaving her pulseless and unable to resuscitate. I was overcome by the intensity of the situation, the thought of her husband as the sole parent to 10 children and the reality of her 10th child living with the memory of his or her’s mothers death on their birthday. To this day, this woman’s story still affects me – I remember it and feel it as if it just happened.

Storytelling ideas

A couple of years ago, I took an on-line memoir writing course through Gotham Writers and truly enjoyed every minute of it. Although a full course isn’t necessary, it was certainly motivating and educational. Other options include either keeping a personal journal or submitting to a contest, a published journal, or an anthology (like the one I am currently working on).

How do the stories of others impact your life?


1 comment

  1. 1

    This post got me thinking of all the memorable stories of Oliver Sacks who “developed a genius for paying attention to people whose illness might have rendered them invisible” (saw that in an article in The Atlantic, and to me it spoke volumes about the impact of his stories).

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