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The future of healthcare has to be all about technical evolution, right? Electronic medical records, predictive analytics, telehealth, blockchain — those are the driving forces of traditional innovation in the health space, and while the improvements that these advances make are unquestionable, they are also cold, unfeeling, non-human centered tweaks.

Healthcare is intrinsically human and ultimately and consistently reliant on a direct person to person contact. That absolute need for human interaction leaves even the best technological solutions lacking a certain discrete ability, namely, empathy.

In healthcare, empathy is essential. It can generate a deeper understanding of the needs of the individual and family, establish and sustain a connection between patients and providers facilitating a greater quality of care, and empower leaders and organizations to learn from their communities and work towards continuous improvement.

Here at the BIF, we believe that storytelling can be an incredibly powerful tool for building empathy. It can open people to new perspectives, create shared experiences, and promote insights and learnings. Through our work, we have seen storytelling used in three distinct ways:

  • Storytelling helps us understand.
  • Storytelling that helps us improve.
  • Storytelling that helps us inspire and engage.

Storytelling helps us understand the job to be done.

Every business model is designed to create, deliver, and capture value for the customer. Healthcare is no different, with the slight exception that each customer, each individual, each patient is seeking their own unique value. When we start with a patient story, we can gain a deeper understanding of the needs of that patient, and a better understanding of a patient’s needs allows an organization to serve them better.

When HopeLab, a Social Innovation Company based in San Francisco, CA was searching for ways to improve the experience of children with cancer, they chose to listen to their patient’s stories. What they found was that the patients feared the treatment just as much as they feared the disease. This enabled HopeLab to focus on a gamified treatment that removed the fear. By devoting time to listen to their patient’s stories, HopeLab was able to increase treatment compliance, produce better clinical outcomes and improve the patient experience.

Storytelling helps us to continually improve patient care

Traditional healthcare can be impersonal, to put it lightly; twenty minutes in the waiting room followed by a few deep breaths, a cold stethoscope, a barrage of ubiquitous questions, and you’re done. When we allow a provider or caregiver a glimpse into the life of the patient and their family, you create a shared experience that fosters empathy and makes healthcare personal again.

At Yale-New Haven Hospital, patients and families are encouraged to create a communication board inside the patient’s room. These boards depict the lives of the patient outside of the hospital; their likes, dislikes, and interests. This information may seem trivial but it could provide clues to environmental conditions, lifestyle factors, socioeconomic status or behaviors that can affect patient health.

Storytelling helps us learn and change.

In an age where everything is measured and metrics reign supreme, it is important to remain that context is still king. So much of our healthcare system is reliant on data that we have come to believe that that same data will drive us to improve and innovate. However, data is more powerful when it is presented with a story (i.e. 200 unique admissions to the zoo vs. the story of Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo). Persuasion based on data will lead organizations toward incremental quality improvement tweaks. Inspiration to transform relies on story.

Throughout Adventist Health System, storytelling is used to promote cases of exceptional care as examples of what patient care should look like at all levels of the organization. These stories are highlighted by leadership through a series of ‘mission moments’. The organizations have adopted storytelling as a strategic practice that propels the mission forward.

Storytelling can help us answer the questions:

How might we gain a deeper understanding of the pain points experienced by my patients so that we can treat the whole person?

How might we help a caregiver see the patient as a person, distinct and separate from their medical condition?

How might we engage leaders in our efforts to transform healthcare and improve the patient experience?

Organizations could have this incredible tool that will capture, create, and deliver new value to their customers. Patients could feel understood at the onset of care, important during the course of their treatment, and empowered to help others with their story.

When used in harmony, organizations can explore, employ, and exploit the incredible power of narrative to create dynamic value for their consumer and improve their user experience.


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