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The need for honest stories in patient care


Through storytelling we can create empathy and earn trust.

patient with doctor | © WavebreakMediaMicro - stock.adobe.com

© WavebreakMediaMicro - stock.adobe.com

Nothing is more deeply human than the pursuit of health and well-being. And yet in health care, we too often hide that humanity behind a veil of jargon, acronyms, and stock images, distancing us from the lives and experiences of patients, primary care physicians, and other caregivers. It’s time to break that trend and start speaking plainly and clearly. Instead of using jargon to look and sound smart, we should tap the unique power of storytelling to stay honest and real.

The pandemic showed us how important honest communication and trust-building are to public health. There are good reasons why people don’t trust life-saving messages about their health, and the words and images we use are high on the list. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study found that for many lower-income people, “trust and respect were their primary concern with the health care system, even more than the quality of the health care they received.”

To restore trust, health care needs to ditch the jargon and tell stories that humanize the issues we care about. As author Richard Powers wrote, “the best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Fortunately, health care is packed with amazing stories that can shift the narrative in several key ways.

Stories start with listening

You have to ask people about their lives to understand their stories. It’s a superpower that musician Yoko Sen uses when working to improve the sounds of ICU alarms. By listening to people in the hospital, she learned what they were experiencing – alarms that sounded like “a mother-in-law or a toddler or a boss who doesn’t stop” and how they wanted the alarms to be “more like a coach, a grandparent, partner, friend, or colleague.” She used that listening to persuade manufacturers to change the devices and health care teams to adopt the new alarms. When patients and clinicians are asked to share their experiences, they feel heard. When their lives and work are portrayed honestly, they feel seen. (The photos accompanying this article are from a project shining a light on the extraordinary dedication of home health nurses.)

Stories reveal truth

You can’t solve what you can’t see and feel. For example, the rise of peripheral arterial disease and the injustice of the Black amputation epidemic felt to us like distant and obscure concerns until a ProPublica story with riveting photography placed us in Dr. Foluso Fakorede’s overflowing clinic in the Mississippi Delta where he’s saving the limbs and lives of the most vulnerable Americans. In an instant, one great story like this can take the most abstract issue and cut through the complexity, making us lean in and care.

Stories change minds

How do you convince someone to change their mind in this age of argument and division? This question loomed large at the peak of the pandemic with the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine. To understand and help overcome vaccine hesitancy, Walgreens sponsored a seven-part docuseries featuring the stories of real people – a barber, pastor, mayor, and others – wrestling with this issue within their communities. The films helped viewers from a range of backgrounds – including one of the films’ editors – to reconsider their position and get vaccinated. Again and again, we see how stories can break through to people on a different level, especially when they come from trusted voices.

To solve the biggest public health issues we face, we must first help people get across what journalist Ezra Klein recently called an “empathy chasm.” Jargon and acronyms aren’t helping. The old fee-for-service health care model doesn’t leave a lot of room for conversations in care, and more data and facts can only get us so far. We need skills and space for well-told human stories to bridge the gap and get us to the other side.

Emily F. Peters is founder of health care brand strategy studio Uncommon Bold and author of Artists Remaking Medicine. John Fox, PhD, and David McLain are cofounders of Slipstream, reporting on the biggest health issues of our times. They are producer and director of the Walgreens vaccine hesitancy docuseries and a forthcoming docuseries on health equity.

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