Rita Charon Enhances Care By Exploring the Narratives of Clinicians and Patients

In Harvard Medical School's Body Language blog, Katie DuBoff profiles Rita Charon, director of the M.S. program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

The article details Charon's family's legacy in the medical profession. She "is a third-generation physician….Her father saw to the medical needs of a French-Canadian community in Providence, where she grew up. According to Charon, 'They were both kind of small-town, general practitioner, all-around country doctors,' who delivered babies and performed minor surgeries."

After attending Fordham University and then Harvard Medical School, she became a faculty member at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. She also enrolled in English classes and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in English.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Charon began to fuse her love of literature and writing with the need to add nuance to the narratives of clinicians and patients. What started as workshops and classes in Narrative Medicine at Columbia became an M.S. program in Narrative Medicine in 2009. The program attracts not only students who intend to enroll in medical school but also longtime medical practitioners and those whose academic backgrounds emphasized the arts rather than medicine.

Writes DuBoff, "Charon continues to practice primary care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she has been since 1981. 'Some of these patients have had me as their doctor for 33 years,' she says."

Of the influence of the Narrative Medicine program and its illuminating workshops, Charon says, "More and more of us are bringing this literary narrative sophistication into clinical routines. This sensibility has made me into a very different kind of doctor from what I was when I started.”