Storytelling in Medicine & Health

Course Offered In: Fall 2018

A course on storytelling in medicine and health, co-taught by a medical physician/ philosopher/ novelist, a professional storyteller, and a literary studies professor. Why do we need stories, and what are the hallmarks of stories that satisfy our need to tell or listen? How do we live out stories in our bodies and minds? In modern medicine, where it has been widely accepted that progress is grounded in ever-deeper understanding of the biology of disease and the ongoing roll-out of pharmaceutical and technological advances, “narrative medicine” was initially seen as a radical departure from protocol. Yet although the strategy for fixing a medical or surgical problem may be straightforward, in other cases–perhaps especially in the settings of intensive care, advanced disease, or end-of-life care – disease biology may not provide definitive insight into how patients, families, and medical teams should act. In these cases, medical decision-making must stretch beyond the ubiquitous language of biology and draw on skills and insights that are much closer to the world of storytelling. Such complex decisions depend upon clarity about a person’s hopes, fears, goals, history, relationships, and character: in other words, such decisions depend upon helping patients and their families to tell more about their story, and they depend upon helping medical teams learn how to hear and respond to stories. The aim of this course is to introduce students to storytelling as it relates to the complex world of medicine and health. Health, in this course, is understood “writ large”: health as development over the course of a lifetime, health as wellbeing, health as illness, treatment, and outcome; health as a synonym for “medicine” that also specifically reminds us of its difference from the institutional structures of medicine. We will use a range of approaches to export the art of storytelling at the crossroads of human health and development and illness and death.

We hope that this course helps students to develop their own capacity to tell and hear stories (both written and spoken), and assignments during the semester will be aimed at this goal. At the end of the semester we will share the stories we develop with the larger Duke community through performance and video. This course will be interactive by design.

Course Taught By: Profs. Ray Barfield M.D., Ph.D., Deborah Jenson, Ph.D., and Jeff Polish, Ph.D.

To learn more, read this fabulous article from the Duke Global Health Institute and read this paper from the course.


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