Doctor's 'Worst Ever' Headache, and Learning the Patient Story


We start life learning from stories. We learn about our history, our culture from our parents and grandparents. As kids, we make up stories to explain our ideas and experiences. Those of us who have the privilege of going to medical school often find that our best clinical teachers are the ones who tell us stories of patients they have seen. And they teach us to elicit stories from our patients.

Indeed, many are drawn to medicine in the first place by great medical story tellers like Oliver Sacks and Abraham Verghese. They show us that with medicine, we can be data geeks and students of the humanities at the same time.

But at some point, we often lose a piece of our humanity during training, with its long hours, and short sleep. Many doctors, including me, can't forget that night on call, when we actually wished Mr. Jones would hurry up and die, so that we could rest. Survival during medical training is all about efficiency and stories aren't efficient. We learn to boil patients down and reduce them to facts and numbers. Mrs. Garcia, mother of 6 who came to this country to escape further oppression in Guatemala after losing her husband, becomes simply gallstone pancreatitis in room 318.

We see this codified in the jargon doctors use to organize a patient's medical record. The History of Present Illness just doesn't sound like a place to tell stories. And now we're pushing doctors further from the patient's story by asking them to use electronic medical records, which often make taking a medical history feel like filling out an endless series of forms.

We were born with stories and so was the practice of medicine. Technology is transforming our lives including letting us create and share stories in ways limited only by our imaginations. Now let's innovate together to bring stories back into health care, so that we can better understand today's most important questions and more efficiently discover their answers. I look forward to hearing your stories.

Dr. Roni Zeiger is Chief Health Strategist at Google and a practicing physician. Follow him on Twitter at

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