Physicians Emphasize Importance of Storytelling to Advance Patient Care

University of California, San Francisco News (San Francisco, CA), January 24, 2012


Two doctors who have learned the art of telling stories are convinced that it has become indispensable to top-notch medical care.

“A slow cultural shift over the past 20 years led by television — from “St. Elsewhere” to “ER” — has been humanizing society’s view of the practice of medicine,” said John Maa, MD, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Surgery. “… As physicians, we must now harness the power of storytelling to enlighten Capitol Hill to enact new laws” to support emergency health care personnel.

Maa spoke at Grand Rounds on “The Future of Emergency Care in America: Doctors as Storytellers.” The Jan. 11 lecture on the Parnassus campus took place 37 months to the day that his mother entered a West Coast emergency department, where delays cost crucial hours and possibly her life.

He was joined in Cole Hall by Neal Baer, MD.

“The key to caring well for patients is to learn their stories,” said Baer

“I’ve found the best doctors to be excellent storytellers,” Baer said. “They empathize with patients, they listen carefully and they have a knack for asking good questions that can reveal the often hidden cause of a patient’s problems.”

For example, as a third-year-medical student working in a Boston hospital, Baer was mystified by the chest pains of a seemingly healthy 65-year-old runner until he realized he didn’t know the man’s entire story. After scrutinizing the patient’s charts, Baer ordered standard tests that revealed severe anemia, causing stress that triggered a heart attack.

“I’ll never forget that patient because he taught me to tell stories with depth and detail and to look for twists and turns that can reveal stunning answers,” Baer said.

After Grand Rounds, UCSF resident Sierra Matula said, “This is very apropos. The most important thing is to just listen to patients instead of being rushed and hurried. If you let them talk, they’ll tell you exactly what’s going on.”


Subjects Covered: medicine

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