The Power of Patient Narrative

“The whole world, all human life, is one story.” We as humans are hard wired for the lynn-kelsolistening and telling of stories. Our stories define who we are as individuals, and as a community. If we wish to have meaningful and strong relationships in our lives, we must be able to listen effectively. We can choose what we hear and what we do not hear, what we listen to and what we do not listen to. While one can hear without any specific purpose, listening takes purposeful self-awareness, focus, and unselfconsciousness. Northwestern professor Lynn Kelso, who has devoted her life to the art of storytelling, says it best: “Hearing is a sense. Listening is an art.”

Northwestern Community Health Corps is a student organization focused on empowering community members to take charge of their own health through the implementation of informational health desks located in libraries. As volunteers at the health desk, we sought the advice of Professor Kelso in order to improve our ability to be empathetic and active listeners when hearing health narratives from desk patrons. Storytelling or patient narrative plays a central role in the health care provider-patient relationship. As Kelso illuminated, the ability of any healthcare professional to actively listen to the stories of patients will define their capacity to treat their patients effectively. Patients must believe that they can truthfully and comfortably share their story with someone who will listen in a non-judgmental way. They must not feel that they have to say what the healthcare provider wants to hear, nor feel that they must align with the healthcare provider’s religious, cultural, or social beliefs about the practice of medicine.

In order to be effective and empathetic listeners of narrative, Kelso emphasized that healthcare providers must take the “I” out of the conversation. In other words, the listener must not talk about his or herself and rather focus intently on the speaker. More so, Professor Kelso contends that 90 percent of communication between the teller and the listener occurs through non-verbal body language. Your eye contact, posture, voice tone and responses reveal if you are truly listening. This emphasizes why active listening cannot occur through non-in person communication methods, such as texting.

Health care providers must learn to be attentive, active, and engaged listeners in order to provide patient centered and culturally competent care. In order for healthcare professionals to receive this listening training, a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach is necessary. The healthcare sector must seek advice from those who specialize in speaking and body language, such as Kelso who hails from the theatre department here at Northwestern.

This push for multisector collaboration in developing listening skills of health care providers, has been reflected in the newly developed Feinberg curriculum which places an emphasis on medical humanities and communication training. Medical students, both here at Feinberg as well as other medical institutions across the country, are now required to take courses in the medical humanities, in order to aid in their ability to decipher narratives and communicate effectively with their patients. Even this quarter in Weinberg, Hosanna Krienke has been leading an English course focused on the medical humanities. I am a student in the course, and she has encouraged us as future healthcare providers to pay close attention to narrative, the way in which we listen, and most importantly the language we use to communicate. Words have the power to shape the physician-patient relationship, and thus should be used only with specific purpose and acute awareness of language’s ramifications. In order to understand what language will define our vernacular as future healthcare providers, we must start with listening to every patient’s narrative. As Kelso says, “listen to your world and the stories they tell. They are all a part of your story.”

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