Lise Saffran emphasizes the importance of meaning in public health communication in “The Art of Translating Science.” This conversation is imperative amidst a culture where many important topics become highly polarized and politicized. Saffran argues that it is important for scientists to not just speak more plainly, but emphasize understanding of a concept. She notes that this is more challenging today because “when it comes to politicized topics, our ability to understand is often overwhelmed by our inability to hear.”
As a primary care physician, much of what I do in my daily practice is translational work: explaining a diagnosis, a lab test result, the need for a certain medication, the risks and benefits involved in preventive screening. The goal is to ensure the patient understands the meaning of the medicine, not just the facts. As Saffran notes, “a single word may change the meaning of the whole story.” A physician is also interpreting the patient’s story, taking the narrative they provide about their illness and using this information to determine best next steps toward diagnosis and improving their health. A scientist communicating about public health issues needs to convey concepts on a much broader scale. Our ability to translate effectively will dictate our health as individuals and as a society going forward.
Writing Prompt: Think of a time when you didn’t fully understand what a physician was saying to you. Perhaps it involved a specific diagnosis or importance of a new medication prescribed or test ordered. Did you get the facts but miss the meaning? If you’re a medical provider, think about a time that you missed a significant part of a patient’s narrative. Did that lack of understanding affect their diagnosis or treatment plan? Alternatively, consider a time you read an article on a public health topic such as climate change or vaccinations. Did you understand the underlying purpose of the piece? Have you had a conversation with someone who disagrees with your viewpoint on such topics? What might have increased your ability to understand each other? Write for 10 minutes.
Excited to share my post on the importance of narrative was published on KevinMD.com this week. KevinMD is a widely read blog that shares “the stories and insight of the many who intersect with our health care system, but are rarely heard from.” Grateful for the work done by KevinMD to give voice to those who work within and are cared for by the health care system, as well as serve as a platform for discussing important current issues.
As I struggle with how best to respond to recent events, one thing has become clear to me: narrative matters. People’s stories matter. Words and how they are presented in written and spoken form matter. I am just a mother, just a doctor, just a writer. My daily life consists of changing diapers, getting my kids to school, managing diabetes in my patients, picking up scattered toys, treating depression, doing laundry, writing blog posts, weathering tantrums, listening to the news. It’s mundane. It’s commonplace. It feels insignificant beyond my family, beyond my little corner of the world. But recently I’m seized by the enormity of the need to respond, of the urgency to do something. It feels as if we’re ushering in one of those times: a time that tests our resolve, our character, our unity, our faith. What can one person do?
I remind myself: I am a mother, I am a doctor, I am a writer. I am a citizen of this nation and of this world. My words matter. My stories matter. My voice matters. And so does yours. This is what the world needs: our stories. I am the daughter of an immigrant and a person who welcomed a young Iraqi refugee family into her home. This family, made up of brave, intelligent, hardworking people, left behind what remained of their home, of their family and friends to come here to build a better life for their children. Their story matters. And if you sat with this father, who wants to pursue graduate level studies in the U.S., who cares about what food he eats and laughs easily and plays soccer on a grassy park lawn on a summer day with his son, maybe his story would change your perspective and mitigate your fear.
So we must start here, with our stories. Share your story. Listen to one another. Narrative is needed to break down walls and build bridges of empathy; stories are required to combat fear and xenophobia. Words matter. Truth matters. Listen to words, discern truth, share stories. This is the antidote to being paralyzed by indifference, it is the cure to saturation with propaganda, it is the remedy to “alternative facts.” Narrative is the answer to the call of such a time as this.
Due to the holiday week, I’m taking a break from Narrative Medicine Monday and sharing a favorite: River Teeth’s Beautiful Things. This narrative nonfiction journal posts a short piece of prose each Monday, highlighting a different “beautiful thing”. Today’s piece by Jennifer Bowen Hicks, entitled “White” captures a moment between her and her son as she walks him to school on a cold winter morning. I encourage you to check out River Teeth’s complete series; these short pieces never fail to inspire.