Back to Basics: Medicine’s (Re)Turn to Storytelling

Storytelling seems like a strange topic for a daylong event in the middle of Hubweek, a weeklong celebration of “innovation at the intersection of science, art, and technology” in Boston. Innovation implies novelty or discovery, but storytelling is ageless: we are, after all, narrative creatures, hard-wired to tell stories.


The panel discussion during Storytelling and the Future of Medicine—the concluding session of Hubweek’s Medical Storytelling event—focused on defining why storytelling in medicine is natural as it is innovative. Featuring Jon Adler, PhD, Annie Brewster, MD, and Suzanne Koven, MD, and moderated by WBUR reporter Rachel Zimmerman, the panel reflected on medicine’s (re)turn to its narrative roots.


Despite our narrative nature, modern medical practice has minimized intimacy of caregiving and storytelling. To an extent, modern technology has dehumanized medicine and, in its turn, muffled the patient’s voice. Clockwork appointments leave little time for interpersonal exchange. Diagnostic technology lets the body speak for itself. As a result, patients feel dissatisfied and isolated, and caregivers burn out.


While medicine and storytelling are staged as opposites, their relationship is complementary and vital: health and healing are possible only at their intersection. Where the medical institution has established boundaries or binaries, Dr. Adler, Dr. Brewster, and Dr. Koven have all found remarkable overlap.


Dr. Adler, who studies narrative psychology and identity formation, spoke about the ways stories influence our sense of self. Storytelling puts both routine and extraordinary life events into context. Our life stories are mutable: we are constantly contextualizing and re-contextualizing our lives. Mental health is thus intimately tied to the way we frame our stories and make sense of our their high points and low points.


Dr. Brewster’s work as an internist and as founder of Health Story Collaborative are rooted in her interest in human connection. As a patient with Multiple Sclerosis and a medical provider deeply interested in the stories of her patients, Dr. Brewster understands the power of listening and being present. Illness and health challenges are isolating and frightening, and stories can provide moments of connection and relief in the face of such incoherence. The listener is as crucial as the teller precisely because the listener is able to accompany the teller, to be present when everything else seems to fall away.


For Dr. Koven, Writer in Residence at Massachusetts General Hospital, medicine and writing were not always two intertwined pursuits. Although she is a lifelong reader and writer, Dr. Koven was trained to separate her two passions. Her view was transformed as she recognized the resemblance between writing and healing and storytelling and clinical practice: stories were key to understanding and caring for patients. What’s more stories give caregivers the opportunity to make sense of their experiences in the rushed and fragmented circumstances of modern medicine.


For all three, to understand the achievements of modern medicine is to understand its shortcomings. Medical advances have come at the cost of human connection and storytelling, and patients and physicians alike have expressed their dissatisfaction at the structure of modern medicine.


Dr. Adler, Dr. Brewster, Dr. Koven, and Ms. Zimmerman refuse to settle for medicine’s isolation and thus turn to storytelling as the necessary solution. For each, their return to storytelling is as radical as it is natural.