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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Narrative medicine

You learn something new every day. I got an e-mail advertising new graduate programs at Columbia. The one that caught my eye was "narrative medicine".

What's that? What's a master's degree in narrative medicine supposed to be about?

"Health care and the illness experience are marked by uneasy and costly divides: between those in need who can access care and those who cannot, between health care professionals and patients, and between and among health care professionals themselves. Narrative medicine is an interdisciplinary field that challenges those divisions and seeks to bridge those divides. It 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.

"The care of the sick unfolds in stories. The effective practice of healthcare requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others.

"The curriculum for the master's program in Narrative Medicine includes core courses in narrative understanding, the illness experience, the tools of close reading and writing; focused courses on narrative in fields like genetics, social justice advocacy, and palliative care; electives in a discipline of the student's choosing; and field work."

Well, OK. It's easy to see that there can be communication difficulties between customers and suppliers (uh, patients and doctors) which might hinder care. But what would you do with an M.S. in Narrative Medicine? The web site addresses this directly:

"What will a graduate do with this degree?

Graduates of the Narrative Medicine program will be positioned to lead narrative medicine programs in medical schools and hospitals. As program directors, division heads, department chairs, and senior administrators, they can generate narrative work and supervise practitioners, and uphold and promote standards for intellectual, clinical, and research work of narrative medicine. For others who combine the M.S. in Narrative Medicine with medical or nursing degrees, this degree will enable them to evolve into clinicians who understand and promote the value of narrative to clinical competence, who will go into their own advanced training—internships, residencies, fellowships—equipped to be a different kind of caregiver. For students from other disciplines, such as literature, rhetoric, creative writing, anthropology, gender studies, oral history, religious studies, this intensive immersion in clinical work provides the opportunity to be part of a theory/practice experience that enriches their own scholarly and teaching work, and will be helpful in obtaining jobs in health care."

OK -- so you can either teach in the same type of program you graduated from, or use it the way you would any liberal arts degree. You've gotta love "provides the opportunity to be part of a theory/practice experience that enriches".

I guess I would be sort of hoping for this: "graduates can make a decent living helping to negotiate between patients, hospitals, health care professionals, and third party providers so that the needs of all can be reasonably met."


  1. I had the same expectation, but likewise found the description vague. Do you know of any programs that do have the specific goal of facilitating communication among all those parties? Sarah Lawrence has a masters in health advocacy--although jobs I've seen posted are primarily openings for people to help patients fill out insurance forms.

  2. Thanks for your comment, but I don't have any further info.