The healing power of narrative

I frequently speak and write about the importance of empathy in leadership, as an emerging body of evidence suggests that empathy is critical when it comes to ethical decision-making and overall leadership effectiveness. What’s more, empathy can be learned, as a recent study with physicians so aptly demonstrated.

I was introduced to one of my favourite studies on empathy, also from the field of medicine, when reading one of Dan Pink’s earlier best sellers, A Whole New Mind. In one of the chapters focusing on the importance of story, Dan shares the seminal work of Dr. Rita Charon who pioneered the practice of narrative medicine.

At its core, narrative medicine “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.” While still in its relative infancy, narrative medicine has very much entered the mainstream. Although Columbia University launched the first program, numerous medical schools have followed suit, including the University of North Carolina, the University of Central Florida, the University of Massachusetts, and Brown. The treatment of narrative medicine within medical journals has also expanded dramatically.

In one of her earliest studies, Dr. Charon separated students into two groups. The first group only kept the typical hospital chart, which captured all of the medically relevant data for the patient. The second group also kept what was termed a ‘parallel chart.’ In this latter chart, students wrote narratives about their patients while also talking about their own emotional experiences.

According to the results, students who kept both charts received significantly higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of the quality of patient care. Specifically, these students established higher quality relationships with their patients, conducted better interviews, and exhibited higher levels of technical competence than their counterparts who only maintained a typical hospital chart.

The additive effects of narrative medicine are provocative when considering its benefits for traditional healthcare. At the very least, once again, it appears that humanizing our work and recognizing the power of the human story has important implications for our work and personal lives.

How about you? What experiences have you had in a medical setting (or elsewhere) that builds on (or contradicts) these findings above?

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