Storytelling and Medicine

“Tell me a story.”

That’s something that any adult who’s spent time in the company of kids will have heard. Stories are how humans connect with, and make sense of the world, in childhood and beyond. Storytelling is how people communicate. “Here’s who was there, here’s what we did, here’s how we felt, and here’s what happened.” Language evolved to help humans tell stories.

When people are in an exam room, or a hospital room, their story is what matters most to them – their symptoms, their pain, their hopes for relief – and what is most important to the doctor or nurse hearing that story. Turning that patient story into a story of what to do next, and what might happen after that, is the clinician’s purpose in the relationship.

A medical history is a story

When you tell your story in the exam room, you really want the person listening – the doctor, the nurse, the physician assistant – to hang on your every word, right? Of course, the necessity to document that story in an EHR (electronic medical record) does mean that, too often, your audience will be multi-tasking, but that’s just a fact of 21st century life. The important thing is that your story is heard, and recorded, so that your health condition is properly addressed.

Have you ever prepared your patient “story” ahead of a healthcare visit? If you’re a medical professional, what storytelling skills have you worked on to make sure your patients understand, and can take action on, your treatment recommendations? Being face to face with another human person in this most human of settings is a great opportunity to put all your human-storytelling skills in play.

Storytelling 101 (in healthcare)

There are five elements to a good story:

  • What’s happening?
    • Why is the patient in the office/clinic, and what does the clinician already know about the patient – is there past history, or is this a new relationship?
  • What’s the conversation like?
    • In the case of the patient, that’s what his/her body is “saying” via symptoms. For the clinician, that’s asking clarifying questions about the “what your body is saying” conversation to correctly identify the source(s) of the patient’s condition.
  • Description. What are they see­ing, hear­ing, touch­ing, tast­ing, and smelling?
    • This is what both sides of the dialogue above contains: descriptions from the patient, repeated and clarified by the clinician, to nail down the specifics of what brought the person to the office/hospital.
  • Inner Monologue.What are they thinking?
    • This is where body language and non-verbal cues come in for the patient/clinician storytelling duet. How each side of the conversation picks up on cues from the other’s body language, eye contact, and facial expression adds nuance and contact to the clinical “story.”
  • Exposition / Narrative.What other infor­ma­tion does the nar­ra­tor (in this case, both patient and clinician) want us to know?
    • Have all the bases been covered, with all the symptoms described and all the questions asked by both sides of the story?

Taking your show on the road

In this case, the “road” is the clinical conversation. Preparing for the two-way clinical storytelling session is important for both sides of the equation (by the way, this is true in telemedicine and electronic messaging, too).

For patients, putting together a tight set of action and description items ahead of the conversation will help the clinician they’re telling their story to ask the questions that serve up the exposition and narrative that leads to the best treatment options.

For clinicians, be aware that body language and eye contact can reveal additional information about the patient’s condition. That means actually making eye contact, and directly observing the patient’s body in action (the physical exam!), to make the right diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Presence of evidence

The science of medicine runs on evidence. There is an emerging practice of teaching storytelling principles in medical education that is serving up evidence that story is a key piece of the medical relationship. I’d say it’s foundational to shared decision making, since the information exchange that is central to that practice is all about the stories that both sides tell each other. Doctors are writing journal articles about storytelling, too, which add to the “science” of story in medicine.

Tell your story well. Your life (or the lives of your patients) depends on it!

Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.
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