On Storytelling and Health Care

One of the best ways to achieve a sense of community in health care is through storytelling. Stories make for good medicine. They inspire empathy, laughter, hope and healing. Because we can relate to the experiences of human beings as told in stories, we more easily learn and retain information presented that way.

By its very nature, health care has a wealth of wonderful stories to tell. This is a field that is about life and death, tragedy and redemption, despair and hope. Through stories, we can help patients overcome fear and anxiety. We can teach valuable public health lessons. We can show how physicians and nurses care about the people they treat. And we can help employees connect to the larger purpose of the organization.

Our patients share the stories of their health care experiences through surveys. The caregivers are the characters in the stories – a cast that includes doctors, nurses, techs, aides, support and leaders. These ordinary people make extraordinary contributions to people’s lives and to our society at large. It’s vital to share the stories of the events these characters take part in – the everyday victories and discoveries that touch our hearts.

I often tell people about the Press Ganey story, about how a company that has affected so many lives basically began in the kitchen of a Notre Dame professor. Our company now has offices in multiple locations, hundreds of employees and thousands of clients, but people love to hear about its humble beginnings. History, as told through stories, helps people connect to an organization.

More than a decade ago, I read a story about a young emergency department physician who had realized as his shift was ending that the homeless patient he had been caring for through the night had no shoes. So he left the man his own shoes. A co-worker was so moved by the generosity that she felt compelled to share the story. I think about that so often. It’s heartwarming and validates the goodness and compassion that we look for in those who provide care, but I would have never known about it had the young doctor’s co-worker not taken the time to tell the story.

There is no hard and fast rule on how stories can be told or shared. Make a point of including them in department meetings. Dedicate a spot on your organization’s intranet and solicit staff to contribute. Share patients’ stories so that everyone can celebrate the victories and benefit from lessons learned.

After many years in nursing, I have so many stories stored away as memories and often bring them out as reminders. Different ones evoke different emotions – happiness, sadness, pride, love; they are a chronicle of my experiences, none of which I ever want to forget.

One of my favorites is the story of a 100-year-old lovely little lady brought to the ED with blurred and double vision. The physician walked over to the bedside and, taking her hand, asked, “So, you are seeing double of everything?” At first she was silent, but after a bit responded, “Young man, at my age, I’ve seen most things at least double, some more times than that!”

What’s your story