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Rita Charon

All medical work takes stories as its point of departure. Therefore physicians must learn more about storytelling.
So says Rita Charon, doctor and professor at the University of Columbia, who is a prominent name within the field of narrative medicine.

You have doctorates in both medicine and literature?
– Both here and in the United States there is a tradition in the medical area of inviting philosophers and researchers from other fields within the humanities that can help us better understand phenomena such as disease and death. When I wanted to learn more about storytelling and the structures of storytelling I was drawn to the Department of Comparative Literature.
– I had come to realise how much my work as a physician revolves precisely around taking part of stories. During a health care process, an extensive story around the patient and their ailments springs forth. It is primarily formulated by the patient themselves but also through the health care apparatus. As a physician, you have a responsibility to understand and create your own holistic image of all the dimensions, gaps and inconsistencies of the story.

Did the research programme in literature make you a better physician?
– Through studying narratology and storytelling theories, I realised how enriching it is to take part of stories with other perspectives and views on life.
– Medical work does to a large extent start from the encounter with the patients. It is important to combine professional and compassionate listening. A central strategy within narrative medicine is also to let the patients reflect upon both their own story, as well as that which the health care apparatus creates around them.
– Another important insight is that one's own writing can help physicians reflect upon the patient's story in a better way. When one tries to describe something, one must concretise one's thoughts and when one does, new questions and dimensions emerge. Writing is discovering, so to speak. I sometimes pointedly say that narrative medicine revolves around teaching physicians to read and write.

Your thesis was the foundation for the field of narrative medicine?
– My work contributed to creating new jetties between various institutions and subject areas at the University of Columbia, not merely between medicine and literary science, but also psychoanalysis and phenomenology, among other. Moreover, a research group was created with both scholars from the humanities and clinicians who built on the material in my thesis.
– The group also developed ways of educating about narrative medicine. It was astonishing what great interest both the ideas as such and the master programme sparked. People from all over the world have visited us – Canada, France, South Africa, Australia – and there have been programmes launched in narrative medicine at other American universities. In 2006, I published the book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness and am now on a visit to Sweden since there is also great interest in the issue here.

[Interview by Daniel Brodén and published 2017-01-17]

Contact Information

Centre for Culture and Health

Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Page Manager: Lovisa Aijmer|Last update: 1/18/2017
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