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.

"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," says Juliet McMullin, associate professor of anthropology and principal investigator for the project.

The NEH has funded a number of other narrative medicine initiatives over the years, including a 2002 grant to the Columbia University Medical School, New York City.

Rita Charon, M.D., professor of clinical medicine and director of the Columbia program, 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, N.Y., 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.