Abraham Verghese

Renowned physician, author and educator Abraham Verghese, MD, MACP, often reminds his medical students at the Stanford University School of Medicine that there’s always a story to be told when a patient comes to the hospital.

“In medicine, we are sometimes unaware of how much storytelling operates in our patients’ lives. When they come to see you, there may be a feeling of tension because many patients will learn that their lives will be shortened or changed drastically by a medical diagnosis,” he said.

Verghese, vice chair for Theory and Practice of Medicine and the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial professor in Stanford’s Department of Medicine, shared his thoughts on narrative in medicine as the 13th Gretchen and Edward Fish Visiting Scholar in Medical Education during Medical Grand Rounds on May 19.

Speaking before a packed audience in Bornstein Amphitheater, Verghese discussed how clinicians can improve their practice by borrowing a few concepts from the writer’s toolbox. Reflecting on the concept of character, for example, can help providers ensure that they see their patients not as cases but individuals.

Listening to a patient’s story, he noted, can produce an epiphany. For Verghese, such a moment came when he was treating patients during the AIDS crisis. He realized that even when there wasn’t a medical cure available, he could help patients and families heal emotionally by fostering a personal connection.

“What I hope to do today is convince you that we are always engaged in storytelling,” he said. “Stories are embedded in our discipline; they are instructions for living.”

By listening intently and practicing empathy, Verghese concluded, clinicians will be able to see a side of their patient that they might have otherwise missed.

“Our patients may be nobody to anybody, but will always be somebody to us,” Verghese said.