Deepu Gowda: Healing Healthcare

Deepu Gowda is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), the Director of Clinical Practice in the program in Narrative Medicine at CUMC, and a student in the M.S. in Narrative Medicine program. He also serves on the New York City Board of Health. Deepu’s work focuses on giving care to underserved communities, clinical skills education, interprofessional education, and narrative medicine.

He was recently named a Macy Faculty Scholar, an honor accompanied by funding to support his activities as an educator in the health field. With this grant, he intends to bring narrative medicine to the Farrell Clinic in New York City, not only to offer narrative medicine workshops to their medical staff, but also to develop a sustainable and effective model for narrative medicine instruction within ever-busier clinical settings.

In light of Deepu’s achievement, we spoke with him over the phone from his office at Columbia University Medical Center about what intrigued him about narrative medicine, what these practices can do for healthcare professionals and their patients, and how the discipline fortifies him as a physician, and as a human being.

What drew you to narrative medicine?

When I was a medical student and I was starting to work with patients, I recognized that there were things about health care and one's experience of illness that weren't adequately described in scientific literature, or even social science literature. I recognized that experiences of health and illness that are conveyed through art, through literature, through other creative means, communicate a kind of knowledge about illness that are important, and give us information that isn't captured elsewhere.

I also started recognizing that so much of what happens in healthcare is experienced differently by the various individuals who are affected by it. A medical student appreciates a healthcare encounter differently than the resident, differently than the attending, differently than the patient or family member. We see this incredible web of individuals who are affected by what's happening – and not only affected, they're impacted in a very deep and profound way. The stories that are contained in our community are very rich and need to have a place to be told, and a way to be heard.

Tell me about your academic background.

When I trained at Columbia and did my residency in Internal Medicine, I came partly because of the work that Dr. Rita Charon was doing in the program of Narrative Medicine at CUMC. I wanted to continue exploring this intersection between medicine and the creative world.

My second month of my internship, I chose to do my elective course with Rita Charon, writing about my patient care experiences and writing about my patients. The experience of actually writing about and reflecting on those experiences helped give meaning to an otherwise extremely stressful, chaotic training experience.

We know that training in healthcare and experiences in the healthcare space can be very emotionally laden, and can be traumatic to patients and even caregivers alike. Having an opportunity to reflect on those experiences helps us make sense of those experiences and helps us see ourselves in that experience and become empathic towards ourselves in caring for others.

I ended up doing two of my three electives with Dr. Charon during my residency program. After I finished my residency, I joined the faculty at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For several years, I worked at Harlem Hospital as a primary care physician. In 2007, I came back to Columbia University Medical Center as a primary care physician. I've been here ever since.

What kind of narrative medicine practices do you engage in, and what inspires you to do this kind of work?

I've continued to be very engaged with the Program in Narrative Medicine, participating in writing workshops myself, and also participating as a teacher in workshops where we invite clinicians and healthcare staff from throughout the world to do intensive, three-day reading and writing workshops together.

I've found that the engagement with narrative medicine and the engagement with the people involved in the narrative medicine efforts really provided me with a sense of community and also a sense of restoration every time I’m involved in this work. It is something that really demands something of you, but it's also something that nourishes.