Narrative Medicine – Why It’s Important

by | September 19, 2017 |

Title image: MK Czerwiec, aka the Comic Nurse who is involved in narrative medicine.

We fiction writers sometimes underestimate the value of our own work – or, at least, I do. I sometimes have to remind myself that we humans understand our world through narratives and that if you can tell a good enough story, you can: get an investor to fund your start-up, win your case in court, get the vote, seal the deal. Narratives are powerful.

I have just finished writing a particular kind of narrative with the sober academic title “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee Concerning the Promotion of __________ (fill in the blank with the name of the person coming up for promotion and tenure).” I firmly believe my junior colleague has all the qualifications necessary for promotion and tenure: strong publications, good teaching, solid service. I am also aware that it’s the story I tell about those qualifications – under the defined rubrics of the proper university format, of course – that will or will not convince my colleagues in my department and then the members of the university Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committee to grant my junior colleague tenure. With the future of another person’s career is in my hands, I have brought all of the narrative skills I have honed over the decades to this report.

So, again: narratives are powerful. They have consequences.

Half the fun of teaching at a university is getting to know wonderfully talented students. (The other half is having the luxury to research your passion.) So this week Casey – one of my advisees and a senior linguistics major – came to my office so I could sign some form or another for her. When I asked her if she had any plans for next year, her eyes lit up and she said, “I’ve always thought I wanted to go to medical school, but now I particularly want to study narrative medicine!”

Oh, and guess what, you can get an M.S. in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University:

You can also attend the 4th Bi-annual Medical Narrative Conferences at the University of California, Riverside in 2018 (no link posted yet).

But, wait. What is narrative medicine?

The homepage of the M.S. program at Columbia has this to say:

The care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. Medicine practiced with narrative competence is a model for humane and effective medical practice. It addresses the need of patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be heard and to be valued, and it acknowledges the power of narrative to change the way care is given and received.

I think it’s totally cool that Casey’s interest in both language and medicine finds such a nifty intersection and professional future. I think it’s equally totally cool that doctors – real doctors! – have come to understand that the power of narrative extends to the way health care can be given and received.

Even more provocative was Casey’s mention to me of the work of MK Czerwiec. I’ll let her speak for herself:

Yes, she’s talking about comics, as in comic books. Although many people have the preconceived notion that comic books are just about super heroes, she points out that graphic novels addressing serious subjects have been around a while. The one that readily comes to my mind is:

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a Pulitzer prize-winning Holocaust survivor story serialized between 1980-1991.

So, yes, serious subjects can be addressed in the form of a graphic novel – aka comic book. Czerwiec states she’s been making them since 1999-2000.

I love Czerwiec’s insight that both images and words can help a person process difficult life events. I had never before thought about how comic books could improve teaching because words and images excite different pathways in the brain and thus processes information on different levels, so that the learner can integrate information in new ways. But that’s the beauty of a brilliant idea: it’s stunningly simple.

Here’s a link to her Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371:

Never underestimate the power of narrative.


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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