Professor Erika Wright stands in front of a room of medical students, sitting eagerly and waiting for her instruction. “Get ready," she tells them. “We’re about to dissect.”
But rather than grabbing for scalpels, the students pull out pens. Instead of cutting open a cadaver, they begin to annotate a copy of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks.
You might not think an english professor would be instructing students who are immersed in learning anatomy, but Wright is central to a new program - the Master’s of Science in Narrative Medicine - that will launch at USC’s Keck School of Medicine in the fall semester of 2020. Wright, the associate director of the program, emphasizes how the analytical thinking used to identify the main elements of a story can enhance a doctor’s ability to provide better medical care.
“It’s a kind of medical practice with the knowledge that stories matter,” says Wright, who currently teaches narrative medicine in an undergraduate course and in workshops for Keck medical school students. “We have a way for the healthcare provider to draw upon their skills of narrative competence using skills outside the biomedical field.”
Narrative medicine was first developed by Dr. Rita Charon, an internist and professor of medicine at Columbia University who sought to become a better listener for her patients by earning an english doctorate. Charon developed the field of study during the 1980s and ‘90s, founding the first master’s program in narrative medicine at Columbia in 2009. Over the years, Charon found that a reflection upon the human condition expressed in stories can be utilized by healthcare professionals to provide a higher quality of healthcare rooted in empathy and compassion.
The need for physicians to be better listeners is apparent. A 2018 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that only about 36% of doctors were able to understand their patients’ reasons for needing medical attention from verbal interactions during examinations. Of those physicians who identified as having attentively listened to their patients, the average time it took for them to interrupt patients during their explanations was a mere 11 seconds.
Kasen Wong, a freshman double-majoring in biological sciences and narrative studies currently taking Dr. Wright’s undergraduate class - who also reports for this health and wellness desk at Annenberg Media - recognizes how the principles of narrative medicine can be applied to the diagnoses of patients. “When we read a passage, we try to look for the main idea. [Narrative medicine] is about taking a step back and looking at the intricate details,” Kasen said.
Doctors quickly, and sometimes incorrectly, come to their own conclusions without listening to the entirety of their patients’ perspectives. This can lead to fatal outcomes. In July of 2019, a study by Johns Hopkins University found that approximately 75% of misdiagnosed medical conditions in the United States were severe diseases such as cancer, infections, and strokes. While there is room for error along the entire medical treatment process, mistakes regarding misdiagnoses of serious medical conditions can be avoided at the very first step when a doctor initially sees the patient.
Whether patients are wrongly diagnosed with a false alarm or are incorrectly given a clean bill of health, lowering the number of misdiagnoses could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars in unnecessary medical bills. A step in the right direction could be physicians learning how to see their patients more as individuals with real lives, rather than names to be crossed off a list of rounds to be plowed through.
Wright developed the curriculum last summer to include courses that will teach students how to understand the emotions of others by consuming a variety of works. The intricacy of the doctor-patient relationship, for example, can be studied in the 1991 comedy film, “What About Bob?” Beauty in the face of dying from a terminal disease can be analyzed in Margaret Edson’s play, “Wit.”
Master’s candidates will learn how to express their own perspectives in creative writing seminars while a course on statistical research methods gives students the foundation to perform research involving medical humanities. The program will also provide instruction to students on how to create, facilitate, and teach narrative medicine workshops of their own.
Ultimately, the aim is to teach more compassion and diligence to make sure patients receive the humane care that everyone deserves. As Wright puts it, “when we slow down, we can hear each other and help each other more efficiently.”