The Story Behind the Science

November 15, 2011

Penn Medicine News Release

(PHILADELPHIA) – Doctors should consider the use of narrative -- in the form of patient stories and testimonials -- as a powerful tool for translating and communicating evidence-based policies to the public to buoy buy-in on important health issues such as cancer screenings and vaccination mandates, according to two physicians from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania writing this week in JAMA. They suggest two strategies: The use of so-called "counternarratives," which can play a role in neutralizing personal stories – often promoted by celebrities via the news media -- that support disproven theories, and narratives about the process of scientific study and discovery, to unmask the often hidden work of researchers and guidelines committees.

The role of narrative in medicine rose up this fall, when both Rudy Giuliani and Joe Torre spoke out against the new U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations against routine prostate cancer screening for healthy men. Giuliani and Torre, both high-profile prostate cancer survivors, claimed the prostate-specific antigen (PSA test) "saved their lives," and that moving away from routine screening would imperil the lives of millions of men. The physicians working to educate the public about the science behind the new recommendations struggled to control the discussion in the face of these emotional, fear-based appeals... Read More