Listening To The Heart

Narrative medicine helps patients share and navigate their experiences

One bright spot in heart transplant patient Robert Montgomery’s six-week stay at UK HealthCare were visits from Dr. Robert B. Slocum.  

Slocum isn’t a medical doctor – he has doctorates in law, ministry and theology – so he didn’t poke, prod, discuss procedures or dispense medications. Instead, he asked Montgomery questions and listened. Their conversation topics ranged from raising teens to preparing for a heart transplant. 

Encouraging patients to talk or write about their experiences and feelings is the focus of narrative medicine, a program in Integrative Medicine & Health Services that is coordinated by Slocum.  

“Narrative medicine is an opportunity, especially for a long-term patient with a serious condition, to reflect on their condition,” said Slocum. 

Something on their mind

A patient writes in a journalHealthcare professionals refer patients who they think could benefit from talking to Slocum. “When I get a referral, I am being pointed to a patient who someone believes has something to say, has something on their mind,” he said.

When Slocum launched the program five years ago, he worked with patients at the UK Markey Cancer Center. Now, narrative medicine is offered to patients throughout UK HealthCare. Slocum spends a significant portion of his time with cardiovascular patients, especially those with heart failure who are candidates for ventricular assist devices (VAD) or a heart transplant.  

For those who want to talk, Slocum begins with questions like “What brings you here?” “What are your sources of strength?” and “Do you see anything differently now?” 

“They might want to talk about how to sort out plans for the future or talk about their goals for care,” Slocum said. “It can be helpful for a patient to talk through the process and their priorities. It can also remind them that they have a life beyond being a patient.  

Taking each person as they are

Every patient visit is different, and Slocum adapts his approach to the situation. “I try very intentionally to take each person as they are.”  

Some visits are brief; others last an hour or more. A number of patients, like Montgomery, also write about their experiences in blue journals that Slocum provides.  

Additionally, Slocum’s notes in patient charts often give the care team important insights into a patient’s concerns, motivations and attitude. 

UK HealthCare a leader

Although narrative medicine is being studied and used around the world, Slocum believes UK HealthCare is a leader in making it an essential part of patient care. Slocum had a recent article published in Heart & Lung on the role of narrative medicine in the care of VAD patients.    

“We are taking a role in implementing it here in a way that is integrative to the patient’s treatment. I believe that is significant.”  

Patients like Montgomery agree. Slocum always comes by when Montgomery returns to UK for treatment and checkups. No matter what they discuss, it is always time well spent, Montgomery said. “Talking to Dr. Slocum is a worthwhile investment, from a patient’s standpoint.” 

“Narrative medicine is an opportunity, especially for a long-term patient with a serious condition to reflect on their condition.” – Robert Slocum, PhD, Narrative Medicine Facilitator at UK HealthCare