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From DOCTORS' STORIES to Doctors' Stories, and Back Again

Last Updated: November 20, 2020


Stories have always been central to medicine, but during the twentieth century, bioscience all but eclipsed narrative’s presence in medical practice. In Doctors’ Stories, published in 1991, Kathryn Montgomery excavated medicine’s narrative foundations and functions to reveal new possibilities for how to conceive and characterize medicine. Physicians’ engagement with stories has since flourished, especially through the narrative medicine movement, although in the twenty-first century this has been challenged by the health care industry’s business-minded and data-driven clinical systems. But doctors’ stories—and Montgomery’s text—remain crucial, schooling clinicians in reflection, ethical awareness, and resilience. The closing section of this paper describes the practice of writing 55-word short stories, a practice introduced to medical students at the University of Virginia as a pocket-sized yet powerful tool for reflection. Physicians who write 55-word reflective stories can hold to humanistic and ethical understandings of patient care and of themselves as healers even as they practice in systematized settings and employ evidence-based expertise; this kind of reflective writing may also help physicians resist burnout, even reconnect with joy in their work and meaning in their professional life.


Marcia Day Childress PhD, Center for Health Humanities and Ethics, University of Virginia School of Medicine (mdf4e@virginia.edu)