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.


The ingenious exercise at the heart of this superb and suggestive pedagogical report could be put to good use in many kinds of medical classrooms. I have used a form of it in a medical humanities class for undergraduates, for instance, using for a point of view some fictional (or film) patient who has suffered in a medical encounter and not had the chance to speak, such as the little girl in William Carlos Williams’s story, The Use of Force  (annotated by Felice Aull and also by Pamela Moore and Jack Coulehan).

Primary Source

Literature & Medicine, 5: 58-74 (1986)


Johns Hopkins Univ. Press

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