Learning to Listen to Patients’ Stories

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The pandemic has been a time of painful social isolation for many. Few places can be as isolating as hospitals, where patients are surrounded by strangers, subject to invasive tests and attached to an assortment of beeping and gurgling machines.

How can the experience of receiving medical care be made more welcoming? Some say that a sympathetic ear can go a long way in helping patients undergoing the stress of a hospital stay to heal.

“It is even more important now, when we can’t always see patients’ faces or touch them, to really hear their stories,” said Dr. Antoinette Rose, an urgent care physician in Mountain View, Calif., who is now working with many patients ill with Covid.

“This pandemic has forced many caregivers to embrace the human stories that are playing out. They have no choice. They become the ‘family’ at the bedside,” said Dr. Andre Lijoi, a medical director at York Hospital in Pennsylvania. Doctors, nurses and others assisting in the care of patients “need time to slow down, to take a breath, to listen.”

Both doctors find their inspiration in narrative medicine, a discipline that guides medical practitioners in the art of deeply listening to those who come to them for help. Narrative medicine is now taught in some form at roughly 80 percent of medical schools in the United States. Students are trained in “sensitive interviewing skills” and the art of “radical listening” as ways to enhance the interactions between doctors and their patients.

“As doctors, we need to ask those who come to us: ‘Tell me about yourself,’” explained Dr. Rita Charon, who founded Columbia University’s pioneering narrative medicine program in 2000. “We have fallen out of that habit because we think we know the questions to ask. We have a checklist of symptom questions. But there is an actual person in front of us who is not just a collection of symptoms.”

Columbia is currently offering training online for medical students like Fletcher Bell, who says the course is helping to transform the way he sees his future role as healer. As part of his narrative medicine training, Mr. Bell has kept in touch virtually with a woman who was being treated for ovarian cancer, an experience of sharing that he described as being both heartbreaking and also beautiful.

“Simply listening to people’s stories can be therapeutic,” Mr. Bell observed. “If there is fluid in the lungs, you drain it. If there is a story in the heart, it’s important to get that out too. It is also a medical intervention, just not one that can be easily quantified.”

This more personalized approach to medical care is not a new art. In the not-so-distant past, general practitioners often treated several generations of the same family, and they knew a lot about their lives. But as medicine became increasingly institutionalized, it became more rushed and impersonal, said Dr. Charon.

The typical doctor visit now lasts from 13 to 16 minutes, which is generally all that insurance companies will pay for. A 2018 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that the majority of doctors at the prestigious Mayo Clinic didn’t even ask people the purpose of their visit, and they frequently interrupted patients as they spoke about themselves.

But this fast-food approach to medicine sacrifices something essential, says Dr. Deepu Gowda, assistant dean of medical education at the Kaiser-Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena, Calif., who was trained by Dr. Charon at Columbia.

Dr. Gowda recalls one elderly patient he saw during his residency who suffered from severe arthritis and whom he experienced as being angry and frustrated. He came to dread her office visits. Then he started asking the woman questions and listened with interest as her personal history unfolded. He became so intrigued by her life story that he asked her permission to take photographs of her outside the hospital, which she granted.

Dr. Gowda was particularly struck by one picture of his patient, cane in hand, clutching onto the banister of her walk-up apartment. “That image represented for me her daily struggles,” he said. “I gave her a copy. It was a physical representation of the fact that I cared for who she was as a person. Her pain didn’t go away, but there was a lightness and laughter in those later visits that wasn’t there before. There was a kind of healing that took place in that simple human recognition.”

While few working doctors have the leisure time to photograph their patients outside the clinic, or to probe deeply into their life history, “people pick up on it” when the doctor expresses genuine interest in them, Dr. Gowda said. They trust such a doctor more, becoming motivated to follow their instructions and to return for follow-up visits, he said.

Some hospitals have started conducting preliminary interviews with patients before the clinical work begins as a way to get to know them better.

Thor Ringler, a family therapist, started the “My Life, My Story” program at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis., in 2013. Professional writers are hired to interview veterans — by phone and video conference since the onset of the pandemic — and to draft a short biography that is added to their medical record and read by their attending physician.

“My goal was to provide vets with a way of being heard in a large bureaucratic system where they don’t always feel listened to,” Mr. Ringler said.

The program has spread to 60 V.A. hospitals, including in Boston, where more than 800 veteran stories have been compiled over the past three years. Jay Barrett, nurse manager at the VA Boston Healthcare System, said these biographies often provide critical information that can help guide the treatment.

“Unless they have access to the patient’s story,” Ms. Barrett said, “health care providers don’t understand that this is a mother who is taking care of six children, or who doesn’t have the resources to pay for medication, or this is a veteran that has severe trauma that needs to be addressed before even talking about how to manage the pain.”

Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a family doctor who teaches at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, has been studying veterans who were undergoing treatment for pain. Those who were asked to tell about their lives experienced less chronic pain and rated the relationship with their physician higher than those who had not. The doctors who solicited the stories also reported more job satisfaction and were subject to less emotional burnout, which has become an especially worrisome problem during the Covid pandemic.

Demands have never been greater on health care workers’ time. But narrative medicine advocates say that it only takes a few moments to forge an authentic human connection, even when the communication takes place online, as it often does now. Dr. Mehl-Madrona argues that remote videoconferencing platforms like Zoom can actually make it even easier to keep track of vulnerable people and to solicit their stories.

Derek McCracken, a lecturer at Columbia University who helped develop training protocols for using narrative techniques in telehealth, agrees. “Telehealth technology can be a bridge,” he said, “because it’s an equalizer, forcing both parties to slow the conversation down, be vulnerable and listen attentively.”

The critical point for Dr. Mehl-Madrona is that when people are asked to talk about themselves — whether that happens in person or onscreen — they are “not just delivering themselves to the doctor to be fixed. They become actively engaged in their own healing.”

“Doctors can be replaced by computers or by nurses if they think their only role is just to prescribe drugs,” he added. “If we want to avoid the fate of the Dodo bird, then we have to engage in dynamic relationships with patients, we have to put the symptoms in the context of people’s lives.”

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