“Health Narratives” Help Many Deal with Illness, Loss, and Grief Experiences

Arthur Lazarus, MD, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, says patients can harness the power of writing, sharing, and telling stories of health and sickness by using personal narratives to navigate illness, trauma, and grief. He explains that the experience of being ill is made less isolating by connecting with like-minded individuals and communities that share similar experiences. Dr. Lazarus says this is not just a matter of patients telling their stories about health-related events, but they also include “a patient’s understanding and interpretation of their illness, the challenges they face, their coping strategies, and their overall experience with and passage through the health care system.” He goes on to say these narratives have the potential to provide a holistic view of a patient’s health, beyond just the clinical aspects, encompassing the emotional, psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of health. Key benefits he cites of writing such narratives are: 1) Improved patient-provider communication that help practitioners to better understand the patient’s perspective; 2) Increased awareness of health conditions; 3) Input useful for developing enhanced patient-centered care models; 4) Therapeutic benefits, such as reduced stress for patients. Physicians should encourage their patients to write about their illnesses, Dr. Lazarus says, and share in their patients’ works. It’s a way to tap into the vulnerability people feel when seriously ill, a vulnerability generally disregarded by modern health care systems preoccupied with technology. As he put it, “Words are as important as medicine in the healing process. Physicians should never forget it.”

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