Personal illness narratives: using reflective writing to teach empathy

Acad Med. 2004 Apr;79(4):351-6. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200404000-00013.


Reflective writing is one established method for teaching medical students empathetic interactions with patients. Most such exercises rely on students' reflecting upon clinical experiences. To effectively elicit, interpret, and translate the patient's story, however, a reflective practitioner must also be self-aware, personally and professionally. Race, gender, and other embodied sources of identity of practitioners and patients have been shown to influence the nature of clinical communication. Yet, although medical practice is dedicated to examining, diagnosing, and treating bodies, the relationship of physicians to their own physicality is vexed. Medical training creates a dichotomy whereby patients are identified by their bodies while physicians' bodies are secondary to physicians' minds. As a result, little opportunity is afforded to physicians to deal with personal illness experiences, be they their own or those of loved ones. This article describes a reflective writing exercise conducted in a second-year medical student humanities seminar. The "personal illness narrative" exercise created a medium for students to elicit, interpret, and translate their personal illness experiences while witnessing their colleagues' stories. Qualitative analysis of students' evaluation comments indicated that the exercise, although emotionally challenging, was well received and highly recommended for other students and residents. The reflective writing exercise may be incorporated into medical curricula aimed at increasing trainees' empathy. Affording students and residents an opportunity to describe and share their illness experiences may counteract the traditional distancing of physicians' minds from their bodies and lead to more empathic and self-aware practice.

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Narration*
  • New York
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Pilot Projects
  • Program Evaluation
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Teaching / methods*
  • Writing