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Storytelling in Healthcare Enhances Experience for Patients and Providers

Sarah Kearns, for HealthLeaders Media, June 15, 2009

Facilities in the United States and the United Kingdom are using storytelling to enhance the information that comes out of the patient history taken by a care provider, which is often used to get a better sense of how to treat the patient. Storytelling also helps providers develop a relationship with the patient and form a better understanding of an individual case.

"In asking the questions, the practitioner starts bringing out the texture of the person’s life, and not just the data," says Andre Heuer, DMin, LICSW, a storyteller, psychotherapist, and educator in Minneapolis. "The details begin to fill in, so it becomes a broader picture with movement and what the patient feels about the situation along the way."

Continuing to ask questions throughout the patient’s diagnosis will help develop a more cohesive story, allowing any gaps to be filled in that might have been missed otherwise. This also helps reveal unknown causes of a patient’s condition or illness and can lead to quicker responses, says Heuer.

Anna Tee, patient stories coordinator at the 1,000 Lives Campaign in Wales, an initiative of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), says there has been a shift in belief from "the doctor knows best" to a recognition that the patient’s perspective should be considered. This belief has helped develop storytelling as a technique for patient care.

"'Patient stories' is a term that describes a powerful tool that is extremely effective in gathering, listening to, and making changes based on the patient’s voice," says Tee. The process must allow for a patient or patient caregiver to present his or her experience with an illness or condition in his or her own words "to gain an understanding of what it is like as a patient."

Why does storytelling capture the mind?

A "story" and "storytelling" each have benefits when broken down, says Haven. The following are a few reasons stories are more effective than using plain data:

  • Human minds are hardwired to think in very specific story terms; we make sense out of experience through story

  • Human memory is strongly enhanced by story, and there is a greater likelihood that we will retain the information shared through a story than information presented through detail points, which are more likely to be altered or forgotten

  • Stories create empathy

Points to remember

Before a facility can jump into using storytelling, staff members should clearly understand why they are using the tactic. This understanding, as well as organization and planning, are key factors to the program’s success.

"The hospital should be aware that there is value in storytelling, that staff members with patient contact need to understand what storytelling means, and that storytelling should not interrupt the normal flow of the hospital and staff members’ schedules," says Kendall Haven, author and master storyteller at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN, which promotes the power of storytelling to enrich life in the home, workplace, and community.

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