At times, I felt like I was stepping away from my work as a Health for America fellow into a separate world of literature, poetry, visual art, and more. It was a week full of opportunities to read and discuss. To write and reflect. To share.
Though it initially felt like a tangential (yet meaningful) adventure, I realized as the week went on that I was not stepping away from my work as a Health for America fellow but, in fact, digging deeper into it.
Why is that? According to the Columbia University Program’s website, narrative medicine is a field which “fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness.” This practice trains healthcare providers of all sorts to strengthen their skills of observation, synthesis, and connection—first by looking at works of art, then by look at healthcare experiences. In short, narrative medicine is emerging out of a growing understanding in the healthcare community that our stories matter. The stories of our patients matter. The stories of our clinicians matter. The stories of our hospitals matter.
And this is realization is key to the human-centered design process. You could make a strong case that so much of what we do in this fellowship is recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved (toward innovative solutions) by the stories we’re hearing. How else would we get root of the challenges patients are experiencing? How else would we fully understand the scope of the pain points clinicians are dealing with? How else would we understand how the solution we’re building needs to shift and evolve?
Yet, we as a healthcare community don’t always do the best job of making space for and honoring each other’s stories. We hear of patients’ stories going unheard and clinicians’ experiences going unacknowledged. It sometimes seems that the stories of our clinics, hospitals, and systems are authored more by reimbursement codes and policies than they are by the human beings who give and receive care in them.
So how do we change this? How do we build the capacity in ourselves and each other to recognize, honor, and use stories in an effort to build healthier, happier healthcare spaces? How do we make space for each of us—patients, physicians, social workers, administrators, and more—to help write a new healthcare story?
The practice of narrative medicine has some of those answers. The field of human-centered design has others. And yet I find myself realizing this may be a question I spend my career trying to unpack.