Kettering University launches new course on storytelling in medicine

This fall, Kettering University is launching a new course to help students understand the relationship between storytelling and medical practice.

The course, COMM 391/HUMN 391: Medical Narratives, will prepare students to perform advanced writing, reading and speaking tasks relevant to medical care and delivery. It will consider the ethical implications of medicine’s unequal delivery to members of society in terms of race, class, gender and disability. COMM 391/HUMN 391 is aimed at pre-med students, but is open to all. Liberal Studies faculty members Julia Kiernan and Rebecah Pulsifer are team-teaching the course.

Julia Kiernan and Rebecah Pulsifer

Above all, they will emphasize to students the importance of human connection in medicine.

“One thing I really want students to take away from this course is that being a doctor does not mean that you don't need to work to gain people's trust,” Kiernan said. “It’s alienating when someone treats you like an illness, not a person. If you trust the person, you’re more likely to get better faster or have a level of comfort, hope and happiness.”

In COMM 391/HUMN 391, students will read journals, case studies, essays and books from authors such as Helen Keller, Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf, and they’ll also hear from a birth doula and a master’s student in nursing, among others, who will provide alternate perspectives on medicine and working with patients. Throughout the class, students will complete a multi-phase project to express a position on the way medicine is delivered. The project will start as a paper and evolve into a multimedia piece, such as a podcast or brochure.

Kiernan wants future physicians to slow down and pause to consider different perspectives and personalities of patients. What a physician may see as important isn’t always what a patient or a patient’s family member will consider important. The elements of storytelling—a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end—are key in talking over a diagnosis and treatment with patients, she said.

Pulsifer, who has a research background in medical humanities, will teach students about the history and sociology of medicine. It’s useful for students as both potential future medical care providers and healthcare consumers to learn how medical delivery has changed over time and continues to be shaped by cultural values, she said.

Students who take COMM 391/HUMN 391 will learn how to write for public audiences, not only for people in the field of medicine.

“It’s important for students to know how to express complicated positions on issues that are important to society,” Pulsifer said. “Medicine is in part about the relationship between provider and patient, which plays out in communication. Different communication strategies can elicit different responses from a patient.”