An episode of the TV medical drama “ER” featured a 14-year-old girl with cervical cancer, who learns that her illness may be linked to human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted after the 2000 episode found that more than 50% of viewers increased their knowledge of the virus after watching the show.
For Neal Baer, one of the show’s writers and producers, it was a testament to the power of storytelling. Baer, who trained as a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School, had read that thousands of women were dying of cervical cancer, but he knew he had to tell an individual story to move people and promote change.
“Numbers alone don’t move people,” Baer said at an online conference Thursday hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advancement in Learning and the Harvard Alumni Association. “Data and emotion lead to action.”
Baer, who was also a writer and producer on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Designated Survivor,” now co-directs a master’s program in media, medicine, and health at Harvard Medical School. He explained how storytelling can make a difference and influence both social change and public health outcomes.
Baer was joined by Suzanne Koven, Valerie Winchester Family Chair in Primary Care Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she is the first editor-in-residence. Koven is the author of the 2021 memoir “Letter to a Young Doctor”.
Baer and Koven spoke about their passion for medicine and storytelling and the emotional power of stories to advance public health. Citing the work of renowned psychologist Paul Slovic, Baer explained that while most people may care about the suffering of one person, they can become indifferent to the fate of many, a phenomenon Slovic calls “psychic numbness”. .
“Slovic said the value of a single life diminishes in the context of a larger tragedy,” Baer said. “When it’s one we can identify, but when it starts to become more of one we start to fade out.”
To underscore the power of such stories, Koven explained how emotional she was over a recent viral video of a heartbroken young Ukrainian father saying goodbye to his distraught wife and baby daughter, bundled up in a pink parka, as he puts them on a bus to safety while he stays behind to fight the Russian invaders . This scene, she said, could help people better understand the horror of war in a way that maps and arrows cannot. She also pointed to the power of a widely circulated photograph of the body of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach. He and his family had tried to reach Greece, part of an exodus of desperate Syrians who had taken overcrowded and creaky boats to try to flee a bloody civil war in their homeland.
“I’ll never forget the white wool beanie and the pink ski jacket the way we all remember the image of the 3-year-old boy face down on a beach,” Koven said.
“We are wired to be reactive to individual stories.”
Regarding medical writers, Koven said that medicine and literature are closely related. Physicians who have become famous writers include Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Keats and W. Somerset Maugham, and more recently Oliver Sacks, Sherwin B. Nuland and Atul Gawande.
“Storytelling is the fundamental currency of medicine,” Koven said. “We have different words for it in medicine. We call it morning rounds, consultations, take a story, write a story, write a progress note. It’s all about storytelling. »
In Koven’s case, she said writing has enriched her life and her effectiveness as a doctor. She said: “Becoming a writer has made me a much better doctor, certainly a much happier doctor.