Humans have a long tradition of literature exploring health. After all, if you own and operate a human body, you’re involved in healthcare. Whether it’s dealing with our own health issues or those of relatives or friends, we all have healthcare stories to share.
As I researched for my new book, Let the Story Do the Work, I discovered that a growing field called narrative medicine has helped healthcare professionals make improvements. Doctors like Rita Charon, founder of Columbia University’s Program in Narrative Medicine, believe stories “fortify clinical practice.”
An effective dose of story can elevate and motivate.
My own healthcare experience has proved this true. In 2011, my younger daughter was delivered full-term by C-section but had to be transferred to the NICU because of her low blood sugar level. As I recovered from surgery, my husband pushed my wheelchair back and forth between my recovery room and her NICU crib. I longed for the time when my newborn was right next to me.
When I recently learned that a Utah-based hospital changed one of its procedures for newborns, I was instantly able to relate. Formerly, they would transport even moderately premature infants to their Salt Lake City hospital, often far from parents. But then they decided it would be just as effective to add mini-intensive care units in the mothers’ recovery rooms. The hospital lost money but continued the new procedure because it was the right thing to do.
My story helped me relate to this hospital, and this hospital’s story is one that Kevin Weinstein, CEO of Analyte Heath, frequently uses to show his new employees why healthcare needs to change.
Weinstein is not—and should not be— the only one harnessing the power of stories to improve healthcare outcomes.
Here are five ways stories can improve healthcare.
- Stories make data memorable.
Every word in a story triggers different brain regions, and sometimes one word will trigger multiple regions. The word “top,” for instance, will activate regions associated with clothing, measurements, buildings and more. Because stories activate so many parts of the brain, every story provides a home for facts. Facts with homes will be remembered, but wandering facts will be forgotten.
- Stories empower patients to understand their own situation.
Stories trigger more brain resources for processing data, thus empowering patients to understand their own situation.
My colleague Danielle experienced this after she developed a food allergy. Her doctor mentioned a woman named Sarah who had a severe reaction while eating dinner with a friend. But Sarah had her EpiPen with her, so she stabbed herself in the leg and went about her evening. Three hours later, she was dead.
The doctor wanted Danielle to take her own food allergy seriously. Because he told a story, he gave Danielle resources for processing and remembering the facts.
- Stories show how much you care.
When others can tell that healthcare professionals find their work rewarding, connections are born. And the best way to show this is by sharing a story about why they do what they do.
Healthcare architect Maureen Blossfeld tells the story of her first healthcare assignment, redesigning a Chicago-area hospital’s radiology room. As she toured the radiology department, she saw the patients’ changing room. This sight reminded her of sitting in a different hospital’s changing room, waiting with her husband for his diagnosis. Soon afterward, they learned he had a rare form of cancer.
The hospital client was Blossfeld’s first after her husband’s death. Overwhelmed by emotion on that tour, Blossfeld considered avoiding healthcare-related work altogether. Instead, she decided to use the insights she had gained. She knew, for instance, that changing rooms were where patients and families spent time talking and thinking and needed privacy, dignity and comfort.
Providing those things for people like her husband and herself is why Blossfeld does what she does. And sharing a story like this can help healthcare professionals connect with the people they serve.
- Stories include metaphors as a way of navigating complexity.
A 2010 study found that doctors use metaphors in nearly two-thirds of their conversations with patients. Metaphors let doctors translate complex information quickly.
Here’s one example cited in an Atlantic article by Dhruv Khullar, resident physician at Mass General: “Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts.” It’s a great image, but Khullar also cautions that physicians must carefully evaluate how useful each metaphor is for each particular patient. It’s important to sync the storytelling skill of crafting metaphors with the skill of analyzing audiences.
- Stories provide a structure for communication.
When the structure of a building looks solid, we don’t question it. Same goes for story structure. Stories help communications flow, hooking a patient’s attention in the beginning, keeping them riveted in the middle, and delivering a satisfying ending—usually a call to action that makes them want to act on the information embedded in the story.
With healthcare accounting for nearly 18% of the United States GDP, this complex system is bound impact us, which means we all have stories. We may not realize that sharing those stories can improve the healthcare field. With a few simple changes in the way we communicate, we can potentially create a disproportionate impact.
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Esther Choy is the President and Chief Story Facilitator of the business communication training and consulting firm Leadership Story Lab. Her debut book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by AMACOM), is now available on major online retail platforms such as Amazon.
LET THE STORY DO THE WORK
People forget facts, but they never forget a good story.\It sounds so simple: Incorporate a story and people will remember your message. But when you get down to crafting one, there’s nothing easy about it.Material for stories surrounds us. Yet few people are skilled at sharing personal anecdotes and even fewer know how to link them to professional goals. Whether you want to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative,
Let the Story Do the Work shows you how to mine your experience for simple narratives that convey who you are, what you want to achieve, and why others should care.Packed with enlightening examples, the book explains how to find the perfect hook, structure your story…and deliver it at the right time in the right way.
You’ll discover how to use stories to:Capture attention – Engage your audience – Change minds – Inspire action – Bring facts and data to life – Clarify challenging concepts – Pitch persuasively – Fundraise effectively – And moreNever underestimate the power of a great story. Learn to leverage the elements of storytelling–and turn everyday communications into opportunities to connect, gain buy-in, and build lasting relationships.