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#482 Storytelling our way to health

Sailing alone

Without our stories as context, we set out alone on the waters of the healthcare system

Storytelling is so intertwined with our health it’s not surprising the healthcare field is gradually catching on. Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons has a whole Program in Narrative Medicine. On the Web site for their master of science program, they explain why:

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.

This is powerful stuff. Generally when we enter the healthcare system at any level, we feel as if we are being measured for a box labeled with whatever symptoms we present. The context for the symptoms is ignored, making medical care an expensive hit-and-miss proposition.

Thanks to the Healing Story Alliance, I have learned of a program in the U.K. whose intent is to put stories at the heart of healthcare. Life narratives become a guide for threading the labyrinth between patients and caregivers.

Patient Voices is an award-winning program that collects stories in digital format and makes them available online. They also offer workshops to assist healthcare professionals, caregivers and patients to develop their own stories. They share their learnings with healthcare programs, carry out research on the uses and applications of digital stories, and develop resources for others to use.

Pip Hardy and Tony Sumner started Patient Voices as a social enterprise in 2003. With their passion for improving the quality of healthcare, they saw both the importance and the validity of storytelling as a tool for assisting health professionals to be more compassionate and informed.

A growing list of stories, all quite short, includes entries from all sides of the healthcare experience. I’ve chosen four to give a flavour of what’s on the site, but there are dozens more.

To learn more, watch Pip Hardy’s presentation for the second Summit for Global Mental Health in Capetown, South Africa, October 17, 2011. It is a brief (just under 14 minutes) but powerful introduction to Patient Voices.

So much of our western healthcare practices are based on numbers and quantifiable results. They are not enough. We are individuals. We are our stories. If we are to heal more than our symptoms, we must become better at telling and listening to stories. They are clues that unlock the doors to our healing.


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Lucy Mathews Heegaard - November 11, 2012

Love this post, Cathryn! Well, I love all your posts, actually, but this one is near and dear to my heart because I at the core of my own work is the strong belief that stories nurture, inspire and heal us. And from everything I have read of yours, I know you operate from this same place. Great to know that medical schools are now incorporating the best of the “old ways” of medicine (i.e. listening and seeking to understand the whole person, not just their symptoms). This gives me great hope for the further of Western medicine.

    admin - November 11, 2012

    Your work is intrinsically healing, Lucy. You’re right, we do operate from the same place. Stories take us home, to the best within us and in each other. That medicine is re-discovering what traditional healers understand is encouraging.

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