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Storytelling in healthcare

How important is storytelling in healthcare?

With any attempts to make change, there is a story helping “ignite the flame“.

From Dr. Atul Gawande:

“In every industrialized nation, the movement to reform health care has begun with stories about cruelty. The Canadians had stories like the 1946 Toronto Globe and Mail report of a woman in labor who was refused help by three successive physicians, apparently because of her inability to pay. In Australia, a 1954 letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald sought help for a young woman who had lung disease. She couldn’t afford to refill her oxygen tank, and had been forced to ration her intake ‘to a point where she is on the borderline of death.’ In Britain, George Bernard Shaw was at a London hospital visiting an eminent physician when an assistant came in to report that a sick man had arrived requesting treatment. ‘Is he worth it?’ the physician asked. It was the normality of the question that shocked Shaw and prompted his scathing and influential 1906 play, ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma.’ The British health system, he charged, was ‘a conspiracy to exploit popular credulity and human suffering.’”

Efforts to bring about change often start with a recognition that there is indeed something wrong. Sometimes we do not recognize that is was a wrong at the time, but only later start to see that something could have been done differently to lead to a better outcome. In healthcare, we need to constantly be telling our stories, but the stories we tell do not have to always be about what went wrong. There are many times when we have positive stories to tell about our healthcare experience. While these positive stories may not always bring about as much attention the ones where some tragedy occurred, they too are important.

After all, sometimes we want to replicate what is working and not just fix what is broken.

We must be prepared to tell our story.

There are some excellent storytellers out there in healthcare. We have highlighted a few here on this website, and even have an “Our Stories” section. For other examples, check out a few of the following:

Regina Holliday

Health and Justice Project




and so many more.

The point here is that there are many excellent storytellers out there focusing on healthcare. These leaders often not only discuss some of the challenges found in the healthcare system but also highlight innovations and sometimes the positive aspects of healthcare. While many of these storytellers in healthcare are from the patient perspective, the provider community is also engaged in storytelling in healthcare.

Storytelling in healthcare must be something we teach and something we all do.

How do we tell our story?

Thankfully, there are great examples available on how to tell a story. While Mark Twain’s version is a humorous start, I prefer the Seth Godin approach. He begins with the notion that “great stories succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences.”

He continues with a few principles of good storytelling:

“A great story is true.

Great stories make a promise.

Great stories are trusted.

Great stories are subtle.

Great stories happen fast.

Great stories don’t always need eight-page color brochures or a face-to-face meeting.

Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses.

Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone.

Great stories don’t contradict themselves.

Most of all, great stories agree with our world view.”

While each of these principles can be expanded, the point here is that in our attempts to change healthcare, we must be prepared to tell a story; we must be prepared to express our thoughts in an organized and compelling fashion.

Is storytelling important in healthcare? The answer, in my opinion, is an absolute yes.

What is your story? When was the last time you told it?