Rita Charon

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


This is an ambitious and far-ranging book, the result of years of thinking, teaching, and working with patients. An internist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, Charon sees a wide range of patients in an urban setting. Also a Ph.D. in English literature, Charon has devised a "Parallel Chart" and other means for caregivers to write personally about the dynamics between healer and patient, to read texts--narratives in particular--and, as a result, to listen better to patients, thus improving the delivery of medical care.

Charon defines narrative medicine as "medicine practiced with these skills of recognizing, absorbing, interpreting, and being moved by the stories of illness" (4). She calls this a "new frame" for medicine, believing that it can improve many of the defects of our current means of providing (or not) medical care. Caregivers who possess "narrative competence" are able to bridge the "divides" of their relation to mortality, the contexts of illness, beliefs about disease causality, and emotions of shame, blame, and fear.

Charon finds that medical care and literature share five narrative features; she argues that careful reading of narratives builds skills that improve medical care, including intersubjectivity between caregiver and patient, and ethicality. Beyond the theory, there are powerful and persuasive examples of interactions between caregiver and patient, many from Charon's own practice. A mother of a sick daughter experiences stress that makes her ill; when she sees a narrative connection, she begins to heal.

Charon sees wider applications. As caregivers understand better concepts of attention, representation, and affiliation, they become more ethical, more community minded, and better healers to their patients. Patient interviews will be different: instead of following a grid of questions, physicians will converse with patients in an open-ended way. What is most important will emerge and emerge in ways that are most beneficial to the patient. Yes, this method will take more time but it will be more efficient in the long run. Bioethics, Charon argues, has been limited by legal approaches and philosophical principles. For her, narrative bioethics offers more human values in how people feel, experience reality, and relate to each other. Finally, there are implications for social justice: why are the poor underserved in this country and in many others?

One of the most exciting and radical formulations comes late in the book: ". . . practitioners, be they health care professionals to begin with or not, must be prepared to offer the self as a therapeutic instrument" (p. 215). This notion links up fruitfully with concepts of energy medicine (v1377v), therapeutic touch (Tiffany Field), and intentionality (Wayne W. Dyer).

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To Render the Lives of Patients

Charon, Rita

Last Updated: Nov-16-2001
Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


The author, an internist and medical educator with a long-term interest in literature (she recently was awarded a Ph.D. in English literature), describes the literary exercise she uses to develop empathy in students taking her required course in medical interviewing. Charon has her students choose a difficult medical encounter from their own recent training and then write, using the first person, the story of that patient’s life in the day before the difficulty--including being treated by the medical student who is doing the writing. Because much of the story must be imagined, the writer’s intuition is automatically brought into play.

Because it is told from the patient’s point of view, the medical student is forced to see the patient whole and without reference to medical terms. Charon argues that this exercise of the imagination yields a combination of objectivity and empathy that forms the basis for good medical care. She also finds that the exercise helps medical students see themselves as their patients see them--and thus to understand, for instance, the effect on their patients of their youth and nervousness.

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