Narrative Medicine in research between singular and plural forms

Maria Giulia Marini, Epidemiologist and Counselor at the Fondazione ISTUD project, Milan, writes:

Narrative medicine has become a globally accepted paradigm, placing an emphasis on provid­ing the space and time for greater personalization of care: the basic premise being that indi­viduals are profoundly different. They live, feel, think and act with rhythms and values in dis­similar ways, when confronted with complex issues such as those related to illness.

In our contemporary scientific world, narrative medicine was born as an antidote to the use and abuse of the metric and predictive values of clinical trials and clinical practice: it works on the basis of observing and listening to the signs of illness revealed by each patient [1].

Technology, until a few years ago, was only able to analyze and produce standard deviations, means and inferences using numerical data and could not support the analysis of narrative text. Equally, statisticians involved with research studies taught researchers, clinicians, scien­tists and care providers to omit empty items in questionnaires where doctors might have added their free thoughts: the explanation being that the comments section did not yield to scientific value, but the more likely reason was that experts did not know how to analyze this knowledge efficiently. Even now, patients’ diaries are considered unreliable and low in the pyramid of evidence by academic clinicians and scientists [2] and therefore risk being pre­sented as waste material in clinical trials.

It is not just patients and associations that have opposed this professional view of the science of care, but sometimes physicians and carers too. And so, gradually, as knowledge and aware­ness has improved through dialectic processes, new theories are beginning to appear. The current era of research taking shape is looking for a balance between the uniqueness of indi­vidual experience and the occurrences of common phenomena in different patients, not only in a “life” but in many “lives”: the narrative evidence-based medicine [3]. And narrative medicine is moving from a singular vision, or one of few cases, toward a perspective of plurali­ty defined within “galaxies of individuals”, each with its own asymmetry but governed by a joint force of universal gravitation. Ironically this is occurring thanks to outstanding techno­logical advances: the semantic mapping software that analyses words, synonyms, expressions and metaphors. The factual and symbolic language represented in the grammar, style and lin­guistics of the many stories of disease and the health, require a means of methodical interpre­tation.

Narrative medicine, originally “centered on the individual”, may be able to embrace a more universal approach without falling into easy generalizations by simply looking, in every dis­ease condition, at the story of a patient, the next patient, and so on to observe the “occur­rences” of common factors and similarities which define us. Scientifically, it is the recursion phenomenon, a mathematical theory which is applied in social sciences to help read events occurring more than once [4]. For example, how many times when communicating a diagno­sis did doctors know to alleviate the anxiety of patients; how often and when during a chronic disease did solidarity between family members develop; when and how often did discrimina­tion in the workplace begin; how much effort goes into managing a chronic disabling illness. Through this analysis, patterns can be revealed among the stories of illness. The narrative ex­plores root causes, analyzing and giving answers not deducible from clinical trials. We discov­er the deepest needs of one’s self; the patient’s identity reshaped by a change in thoughts and actions in “coexistence” with a disease. From these the dynamic or static nature of the situa­tion are interpreted.

We therefore perform reconciliation between the statistics of population and those of an in­dividual singularity. With epidemiology we can calculate the statistical occurrence of a “sam­ple” of the population of sick people, in more poetic terms a “representative galaxy”, to be able to collect the written memories, thoughts, emotions, hopes and perceptions of events in the care environment, family, workplace, with friends and others. Finally, we overcome the single-witness weakness, switching to a more collective vision. But with our narrative medicine, the sample calculation is quantified epidemiologically and is representative of the prevalence or incidence of a specific disease. There is much to do to persuade the clinical study profession of the effectiveness of the sounding capacity of the narrative in its plural version, but there is also another challenge to persuade the psycho-social science profession to marry the narrative dimension to the possibility of using numbers in agreeing how many stories are necessary to reach a resonating pattern.

With narrative, we are in the purity of observation realm without prejudice and assumption. The greater the freedom in relating the story, uninfluenced by the rigidity of closed spaces, numbers and words tracks, the greater the value we give to the study. At first glance, results might appear uncertain, complex or ambiguous from the presence of diametrically opposing results sometimes emerging from the same story. But progressing with the interpretation of a greater sample of texts we realize that there are common denominators or “universality” at the onset of a disease, it’s advance, evolution and regression. Nowadays, even the framework within which we view disease is being reshaped. During his study of quantum theory, Ein­stein was faced with contradictory concepts of light particle and wave, but was prepared to ac­cept both pictures of reality to explain the phenomena of light. In the same way, we consider acute diseases as particles where there is a cure or no cure, and chronic degenerative diseases as waves where symptoms wax and wane. There is no better example than Stephen Hawking, who has demonstrated that even in the darkest case there is a glimmer of light. In his own field he has brilliantly shown that in the singularity of a black hole some radiation escapes the voracious eater of light and stellar bodies and that not everything is absorbed and disappears. Through his own narrative we see the spark which ignites the welfare of others when per­ceived by the reader.

This post was originally published on the ‘Medicina Narrativa’ web site. A particular acknowledgment to Bruce Goodwin for the English editing of the text. Further posts in English are available here.


  1. Greenhalgh T., Hurwitz B, 1999, Narrative-based medicine in an evidence-based world, BMJ 318.
  2. Sackett D.L., Straus S.E., Richardson W.S., et al., 2000, Evidence-based medicine: how to practice and teach EBM, 2nd ed., Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  3. Charon R., Wyer P., 2008, Narrative evidence based medicine, The Lancet, vol. 371, 9609: 296-297.
  4. Odifreddi P., 1989, Classical recursion theory, North-Holland.

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