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The Catalyst

Writing Center hosts national health humanities conference

Staff Report

Narrative Bridge speaker Jay Jacobs created sketches of several conference activities
Narrative Bridge speaker Jay Jacobs created sketches of several conference activities.  photos and artwork provided

“We would never graduate students from medical or nursing or physical therapy school who didn’t know their anatomy or their physiology. How can we graduate students who don’t know the first thing about how to deal with stories, which is nothing less profound than the entry point to understanding our fellow human beings?”

Sayantani DasGupta, M.D. M.PH., asked this memorable question of attendees at The Narrative Bridge: Connecting through the Health Humanities conference recently hosted by MUSC’s Center for Academic Excellence/ The Writing Center. 

DasGupta is one of the leading voices in the national movement to improve health care education and practice through the humanities. She is a pediatrician and a faculty member of both Sarah Lawrence College’s Health Advocacy program and the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. As keynote speaker for the conference, she spoke of the need for health care students to receive training in listening effectively to patients, so they become “expert story elicitors, interpreters, and decoders” as a means to providing more empathetic, patient–centered, and socially–just care.

Narrative medicine is part of a broader movement in medical or health humanities that provides training to make students and clinicians become more observant, analytical, reflective, and sensitive to cultural and social contexts that impact individuals and the way they give or receive health care.

Research indicates that student empathy erodes during the didactic and clinical years of training, but controversy humanities training provides students the means to preserve empathy, remain connected to their sense of purpose and avoid burn out. Although critics view these initiatives as “soft” and non–essential, a growing body of evidence indicates that patients who perceive their providers to be empathetic, communicative and non–judgmental have better outcomes. Columbia University is an established East Coast leader in this movement that recognizes the value of the patient story in improving patient outcomes.

Having received positive student responses to the interprofessional humanities courses they teach to students in all six colleges of MUSC, faculty members of The Center for Academic Excellence/ Writing Center seek to explore the role humanities can play in fostering interprofessionalism, enhancing institutional culture and engaging the community. They developed The Narrative Bridge conference to bring together a diverse group of professionals and students from medicine, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, dental medicine, and physician assistant studies with professionals from humanities disciplines that include literature, rhetoric and composition, illustration and graphic communication.

Narrative Bridge participants gathered Feb. 23-25 at the the Double Tree Hotel.

The participation of representatives from diverse areas was made possible with a grant from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation that allowed the conference committee to sponsor patient advocates and community members.  To ensure participants had the chance to “build bridges,” the conference was highly interactive and experiential; in addition to more traditional sessions, the design included 30–minute “outburst” sessions to engage participants in activities like writing, drawing and listening to music. Featured sessions included DasGupta’s keynote speech, readings by five nationally–known nurse–poets, and a lecture by MUSC’s Humanities Scholar–in–Residence, J. Herman Blake, Ph.D. All presentations underscored the crucial role of narrative in health care.

The unique conference model was well–received, and a number of participants reported that The Narrative Bridge offered the best conference experience they’d had. “I felt no hierarchy was at work and many things were possible,” one participant shared. “The interactive focus was essential,” said one of the presenters. 

Caroline DeLongchamps, who serves on the Children’s Hospital Family Advisory Council, is the parent of a pediatric patient. DeLongchamps attended the conference as a Gold Foundation Scholar. “I was thrilled to learn that the work being done in narrative medicine is helping to create a patient and family centered–care culture in medicine. A health care provider that engages me long enough to hear my son’s story is a provider who has earned my trust,” she said.

Narrative health care scholar Chris Osmond, Ph.D., said the conference “established MUSC as the ‘other’ East Coast center for the crucial work of understanding and disseminating methods and priorities that might make health care a more humane — and therefore truly ‘productive’ enterprise.”

March 14, 2014

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