Hospitals hold hundreds of stories. Here’s why they should tell them.

If you’ve spent any time in a hospital, you likely have tried to read the stories on the faces you encountered- doctors, nurses, patients, caregivers. The fact is that hospitals are places of invariable drama. Everyone has a reason to be there. We know this implicitly.

It’s why writers and readers and prime-time TV watchers crave the stories ever-present in emergency rooms and inpatient units. But for the people who can’t step away from the daily drama of hospital life, it’s sometimes easier to forget. If you’ve spent any time in a hospital, you likely have encountered a certain doctor. She reduces you to another case of your disease, a prescription or a three-month prognosis. She’s forgotten you have a story.

The question, of course, isn’t whether stories have a place in healthcare. They do. The medical community has taken a recent interest in storytelling. Columbia University offers a masters in Narrative Medicine. Many medical schools across the country have added writing seminars to their curriculums and seek to matriculate humanities majors in their incoming classes.

The idea here is that physicians who look for stories in their patients’ charts will treat them holistically and with empathy. Physicians who can craft a story will be better able to communicate treatment plans and expectations. Storytelling will therefore improve patients’ both physical and mental well being. And as the national discussion on the role of medicine turns towards reducing patient suffering, storytelling becomes more and more important.

So what is it about storytelling that makes it so powerful? And how should healthcare providers craft and tell stories to their patients?

A story is worth how many lectures?

You may have heard that the more associations you make with a piece of information, the more likely you are to remember it. It’s this principle- called deep processing- that is the basis for Picmonic, a study tool developed by medical students, for medical students. These popular ‘picture mnemonics’ present information in sensory, visual, and emotion-eliciting ways. In a sense, they make stories out of complex concepts. Picmonic even bills itself as a “visual storytelling platform.”

So why are stories so easy to remember? The short answer is they make impressions on us. They literally change our brain chemistry, as demonstrated by neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s landmark 2012 study. Study participants who were shown a video about a father caregiving for his terminally-ill child were found to have produced increased cortisol and oxytocin. Typically released at moments of distress, cortisol is the brain chemical that focuses our attention. Oxytocin increases our empathy.

What Zak’s study showed was that when we hear other people’s stories, we internalize them as our own to some degree. We feel their distress and we develop empathy toward them. Their stories can also spur us to action. Zak and his colleagues were able to accurately predict which study participants later donated money to a child cancer fund by measuring the oxytocin they produced while watching the video.

Stories help us learn in part because they change the way we feel. We develop a personal, emotional connection to the story and the storyteller- and remember details that we would have otherwise ignored. And sometimes, stories inspire us to do better and become better people.

PowerPoint slides and patient safety lectures and “be kind” imperatives just don’t have the power that stories hold. So what should a healthcare provider do?

How to tell stories in healthcare

Educating physicians to look for patient stories might be as simple as a story itself.

Here’s one from the Cleveland Clinic. Then-CEO hires a Chief Experience Officer. This Chief Experience Officer implements staff workshops on empathy and communication. He also oversees the production of a compelling video called “Empathy.” The four-and-half-minute long video is meant only for internal use, to remind the Clinic’s staff that their patients have lives and stories of their own. This story of stories proves to be so moving that many staff members feel compelled to share its message with the world. It’s posted on social media, and goes viral shortly thereafter.

Since 2013, “Empathy” has accumulated over four million views on YouTube alone.

The Cleveland Clinic example shows how powerful stories can be. It also demonstrates how digital storytelling, in particular, can expand one message’s reach- from a 43,000-employee clinic to four million people on the web. And when you consider the sheer number of stories a healthcare organization could tell, the applications of digital storytelling seem numerous.

Digital storytelling may be a “remedy to burnout” for an overworked internist or an emergency room nurse. It may increase a neurosurgeon’s sense of engagement with his job. It may increase a health network’s employee retention rate. A stubborn patient may comply with post-procedural care guidelines after she watches a story about what complications may happen if she doesn’t. A hospital’s human resource specialist might use funny videos to increase an annual engagement survey response rate. A storytelling training video may help a patient care associate learn how to enter vitals into a confusing EHR interface. A newly-minted cardiologist in Honolulu might watch a video of a Philadelphia clinic’s campus before he agrees to an interview. The chief marketing officer of a children’s hospital might use digital storytelling to build an employee advocacy program.

Hospitals hold hundreds of stories. It’s healing to tell them. How can video tell your healthcare organization’s stories?

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