One powerful and widespread result of the narrative turn in academia has been to challenge what constitutes knowledge and to assert narrative as a particular type of valuable knowledge across a wide array of fields, including the study and practice of medicine. Narrative “knowledge provides a rich, resonant comprehension of a singular person’s situation as it unfolds in time, whether in such texts as novels, newspapers, stories, movies, and scripture or in such life settings as courtrooms, battle-fields, marriages, and illnesses” (Charon). Embracing narrative knowledge in the context of health communication, editors and authors Jill Yamasaki, Patricia Geist-Martin, and Barbara Sharf have contributed a unique text for students and healthcare professionals and practitioners entitled Storied Health and Illness: Communicating Personal, Cultural, and Political Complexities.
Innumerable textbooks, topical books, journal articles and the like have been written about the role of communication in health, from the medical interview to the mass-media driven public health campaign, which will whet the appetite of anyone interested in the broader field of health communication. However, Yamasaki, Geist-Martin and Sharf approach health communication through a narrative lens, and the subsequent outcome is a very different voice among the crowd of health communication texts crying out to be read.
Each chapter of Storied Health and Illness begins with a health narrative, such as the miscarriage story at the outset of the chapter on breaking bad news. The narrative functions as a way to illustrate the health communication concepts, theories, topics, and complexities covered in the chapter but also underscores narrative as a way of knowing for the reader. The book begins by introducing what a narrative approach to health communication means. More topical chapters follow, tackling narrative approaches to patient-provider interactions, healthcare teamwork, digitized healthcare, the role of art in healing, workplace health, stigmatized health experiences, breaking bad news, caregiving, supportive communities, social support, health campaigns, entertainment health education, politics of healthcare systems, health disparities, and activism. With broad strokes, the reader is introduced to narrative approaches to wide-ranging health communication topics and concerns that can, at the very least, inform and, at the very most, transform the practice of medicine and health communication.
Of particular interest are the chapter authors’ acuity at deconstructing the more traditional approaches that eschew narrative without destructively dismissing the value of alternative approaches. In most cases, the authors are attentive to the application of narrative knowledge within the appropriate health context to not only build knowledge but to affect practice. In particular, Dutta and Kaur’s chapter on the culture-centered approach and health disparities provides a constructive means to address health disparities using narratives that are “situated at these intersections of culture, structure, and agency”. Through communicative inversions — the intentional, strategic use of storytelling to voice and reflect what is often the oppositional experience of the storyteller to the collective understandings — stories take on a transformative power to address health disparities, possibly from a community participatory response. Similarly, Sharf demonstrates through diagrams how patient narratives intersect with four continuums: centrality of illness, changeability of outcome, engagement with illness, and patient-provider collaboration. Such practice-based knowledge is peppered throughout each chapter, making this text both generally informative for a reader who knows little of health communication and specifically helpful to a health practitioner or scholar wanting to diversify his or her narrative repertoire.
Scholar Lynn Harter reminds us that “narrating is a central feature of communication between care providers and patients, in relationships realized in health organizations, and in the mediated world of health-related information and entertainment.” Such a reminder reverberates in the approach, content, and lessons learned from Yamasaki, Geist-Martin, and Sharf’s text that take the reader into, through, and beyond the clinical encounter to interrogate how narrative and health intersect.—Elizabeth Spradley
Charon, Rita. “Narrative medicine: A model for empathy, reflection, profession, and trust.” Journal of American Medical Association. 286.15 (2001): 1897-1902.
Harter, Lynn. Imaging New Normals: A Narrative Framework for Health Communication. Dubouque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2013.
Yamasaki, Jill et al. editors. Storied Health and Illness: Communicating Personal, Cultural, & Political Complexities. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2017.
Elizabeth Spradley is an assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. Elizabeth completed her Ph.D. in health communication at Texas A&M University in fall 2013 and has embarked on an academic career aiming to blend interests in health communication, narrative, and interpersonal relationships. In addition to working on several research projects and teaching courses in interpersonal and health communication, she is passionate about growing her own food, encouraging others to garden, and speaking about her faith.