Narrative medicine encourages doctors to engage more deeply with patients by listening to their stories
The Melbourne general practitioner Mariam Tokhi knows exactly what her friend and colleague the senior paediatric emergency physician Fiona Reilly means when she speaks of her “back pocket full of ghosts”.
Reilly is talking about those haunting memories all medical doctors harbour about their interactions with patients who are sometimes labelled “difficult” or for whom things didn’t go as they should or could have. Some survived, perhaps even flourished. Others died.
Doctors tend to evade their ghosts due to their onerous memorial weight, the expectation of stoicism freighted upon them amid the inhumane demands of the medical profession. But Reilly and Tokhi have a different strategy.
They write about these patients, and their shared experiences with them, as practitioners and now teachers in the University of Melbourne course on narrative medicine. Narrative medicine is a practice new to Australia whereby doctors are encouraged, through writing, to ethically engage far more deeply with their patients’ stories.
At its core, narrative medicine aims to build greater doctor-patient empathy. By listening to and observing patients more acutely, physicians get to understand how story – experience – impacts patients diagnostically and therapeutically. Not least, narrative medicine also nurtures doctors’ creative lives, all too often suppressed by their profession’s punishing demands and overwhelming traditional emphasis on biomedicine and checklists.