The Power of Storytelling in Medicine

First published on Educate the Young

In the Co.Create section of Fast Company magazine recently, Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, writes about the science supporting story as the most powerful means of communicating in his article, Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon. He writes:

…Until recently we’ve only been able to speculate about story’s persuasive effects. But over the last several decades psychology has begun a serious study of how story affects the human mind. Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence…

The more absorbed the reader is in the story being told, the more likely he or she is to be changed by it, according to his research. We know that stories shape entire societal belief systems–and Gottschall uses the example of how we once believed the world was flat. Until Columbus discovered America, people lived in fear of falling off the end of the earth. How powerful is story?

It’s true the business sector has known for some time that stories sell–entire marketing departments are built upon this belief. But now, science and medicine are slowly catching on to the power of story to create the change that has stymied healthcare leadership, organizational and behavioral psychologists. We know the proposed steps of behavior change, and have for a while, yet the instance of obesity in the US continues to hit record highs. Maybe getting patients to make that critical move from pre-contemplative to contemplative stage is where story can be most effective.

After all, how do you help someone recognize they need to change? Tell them a story they can relate to–at least researchers and the media increasingly seem to think so. Patients are sharing their own stories on the NYTimes Well Blog, connecting with others around the US struggling with similar health challenges. Researchers like Amy McQueen and colleagues from Washington University in St. Louis looked to better understand the effects of breast cancer survivors’ stories on African American women in their 2011 Health Psychology study, Understanding Narrative Effects: The Impact of Breast Cancer Survivor Stories on Message Processing, Attitudes, and Beliefs Among African American Women. And McQueen is far from the only researcher beginning to measure the effects of story in medical populations, as the body of research in this area continues to grow.

Anecdotally, we have had similar results with our Tears to Transparency film series.

By sharing Lewis Blackman’s and Michael Skolnik’s stories of patient harm with other care providers, medical students and residents in order to prevent similar harm from occurring, we have watched in awe the transformation that occurs in the room when the credits roll and the lights go back on. These stories stimulate conversation around medical error that creates change in the moment. We need to study this, and evaluate how lasting an effect these stories have, and whether or not a booster shot of story is needed, and how often.

Story indeed appears to hold promise for medicine, and healthcare in general. Why don’t people exercise as they should? Or eat things that are good for them? It’s not about the data–we’ve known exercise is good and Twinkies are bad for us, yet behavior change remains a tricky business. It keeps heart surgeons and Hostess in business. But hit someone between the eyes with a story that touches their heart–about a grandfather who adores his grandchildren but now sits on the sidelines in a wheelchair watching them laugh and play, unable to walk for more than a few blocks because of complications from a heart surgery that might have been avoided altogether had he just lost those thirty extra pounds–well that tells a little more compelling story than obesity statistics.

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