Taking a History
A profile of Rita Charon
Claims to Fame
Professor of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center; director of the Program in Narrative Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; author, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness.
Rita Charon ’78 is a third-generation physician. Her grandfather practiced in Chamblay, near Montreal, before moving to Manville, Rhode Island; 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.
Charon took time off between college at Fordham University and medical school at HMS to participate in antiwar politics and teach in a New York City school. After a few years, however, the family’s profession began to tug at her. “I’d always thought my father’s idea, that I should become a doctor, was a pretty good one, so I returned to that.”
Her father continues to be a role model. “I have all of his medical charts. I read them and rediscovered what kind of doctor he was. His work has helped me be the doctor I am.”
It was at HMS that Charon found her mentor: Elliot Mishler, a sociologist and linguist who is now an HMS professor of social psychology at Cambridge Health Alliance. Working with Mishler, Charon grew to understand how doctors and patients use language to teach each other.
This budding interest in language led Charon down a new path. After completing her training in primary care, she joined the faculty at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. There, she was struck by the power of patients’ stories. She began taking courses in Columbia’s English Department, where she eventually earned a doctorate.
Charon merged her passion for medicine and language: She introduced narrative medicine into medical education. Since the 1980s, she has taught classes and led workshops in this field for both students and faculty.
The narrative medicine program she directs at Columbia encourages medical students to enter official assessments on patients’ hospital charts and, on parallel charts, to write feelings about and reflections on the patients. This separate effort is designed to foster empathy. First-year medical students must also produce a portfolio that includes their reflections on becoming a physician. “Writing,” Charon says, “is discovering.”
In 2009, Charon and her colleagues admitted their first students into Columbia’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine.
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.
Charon believes that an appreciation of the role of language helps a physician listen to patients’ stories, share their own stories, and reflect on the human connections those stories form.
“We call ourselves narrative medicine now, which is, I think, a pretty good description of what it is. More and more of us are bringing this literary narrative sophistication into clinical routines,” she says. “This sensibility has made me into a very different kind of doctor from what I was when I started.”
Image: Flynn Larson