Narrative medicine — the idea of using the power of stories to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship — is by no means a new thing. But experts say there's a renewed push toward it in the health care field.

That's the case at the University of California–Riverside, which recently earned a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a health humanities program. It will bring together scholars from anthropology, creative writing, history, psychology, theater and medicine to develop deeper communications curricula for doctors, which they hope might serve as a national model.

"There is a dissatisfaction [in health care] with not understanding what things might be happening in patients' lives that actually are affecting their health," says Juliet McMullin, associate professor of anthropology and principal investigator for the project. "Physicians feel limited in their ability to diagnose as effectively as they could, had they known where someone was traveling or the conditions under which they were living. Developing a sense of empathy might change the way that they're diagnosing people."

Paul Lyons, M.D., the senior associate dean of education at UCR's school of medicine, says results of the program might include using theater and sociology students. Richer, more realistic subjects would allow medical students to "dig more deeply into the experience." Reflective writing courses, too, would help physicians to become more self-aware, empathetic and engaged.

The university earned the grant as part of a push by NEH to assist colleges where at least 25 percent of full-time undergrads are Latino.

The NEH has funded a number of other narrative medicine initiatives over the years, including a 2002 grant to the Columbia University Medical School. William Craig Rice, director of the endowment's division of educational programs, says they're seeing increased interest in the topic. "This is something that appeals to us — spreading the humanities beyond those who concentrate in them to people in professional fields like nursing and medicine and business."

Rita Charon, M.D., professor of clinical medicine and director of that pioneering program at Columbia, thinks hospital leaders should take notice of the trend. It's a mistake, however, to force the matter on doctors through punitive measures, or to frame narrative medicine as a way to bolster patient satisfaction scores.

Deep down, great doctors have a thirst for knowledge and learning skills that will strengthen the care they provide to patients. One malpractice insurance company in Long Island even offers seminars on narrative medicine to doctors, who can earn a premium deduction because they believe that those trained in narrative medicine are less likely to be sued, Charon says.