From The New York Times:
A FEW weeks ago, I received an email from the Danish psychiatrist Per Bech that had an unexpected attachment: a story about a patient. I have been writing a book about antidepressants — how well they work and how we know. Dr. Bech is an innovator in clinical psychometrics, the science of measuring change in conditions like depression. Generally, he forwards material about statistics.
Now he had shared a recently published case vignette. It concerned a man hospitalized at age 30 in 1954 for what today we call severe panic attacks. The treatment, which included “narcoanalysis” (interviewing aided by a “truth serum”), afforded no relief. On discharge, the man turned to alcohol. Later, when sober again, he endured increasing phobias, depression and social isolation.
Four decades later, in 1995, suicidal thoughts brought this anxious man back into the psychiatric system, at age 70. For the first time, he was put on an antidepressant, Zoloft. Six weeks out, both the panic attacks and the depression were gone. He resumed work, entered into a social life and remained well for the next 19 years — until his death.
If the narrative was striking, so was its inclusion in a medical journal. In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails. As a writer who likes to tell stories, I’ve been made painfully aware of the shift. The inclusion of a single anecdote in a research overview can lead to a reprimand, for reliance on storytelling.
My own view is that we need storytelling in medicine, need it for any number of reasons.
Repeatedly, I have been surprised by the impact that even lightly sketched case histories can have on readers.
. . . .
This summer, Oxford University Press began publishing a journal devoted to case reports. And this month, in an unusual move, the New England Journal of Medicine, the field’s bellwether, opened an issue with a case history involving a troubled mother, daughter and grandson. The contributors write: “Data are important, of course, but numbers sometimes imply an order to what is happening that can be misleading. Stories are better at capturing a different type of ‘big picture.’ ”
Stories capture small pictures, too. I’m thinking of the anxious older man given Zoloft. That narrative has power. As Dr. Bech and his co-author, Lone Lindberg, point out, spontaneous recovery from panic and depression late in life is rare. (Even those who put great stock in placebo pills don’t imagine that they do much for conditions that are severe and chronic.) The degree of transformation in the Danish patient is impressive. So is the length of observation. No formal research can offer a 40-year lead-in or a 19-year follow-up. Few studies report on both symptoms and social progress. Research reduces information about many people; vignette retains the texture of life in one of its forms.
Link to the rest at The New York Times