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Tis the season! Storytelling: A Key to a Positive and Lasting Experience

Posted By Jason A. Wolf Ph.D. CPXP, Monday, December 6, 2010
Updated: Monday, December 6, 2010

Maya Angelou, celebrated poet, novelist and educator, is attributed with saying "There is no greater burden than carrying an untold story.” I would suggest that in healthcare (and in particular as we focus on improving the patient experience), storytelling must become central to what we do. It not only influences how staff translates ideas into actions, but it also creates a means by which patients, families and the community can engage with your facility.

In my recent On the Road visit to Memorial Medical Center, it became evident to me that storytelling was central to the hospital’s ability to translate the patient experience message to staff. Rather than lists of "must dos” or required actions, it was the stories that people most often remembered. In fact, one nurse manager suggested that it was the sharing of stories that gave power and life to the concepts being taught. Storytelling has become a central part of their orientation program and a foundational element in their effort to a greater patient experience.

Stories have been shown to have much greater impact than PowerPoint presentations, speeches or even well designed advertisements or promotions. More so, they have a lasting effect well beyond those efforts. Stories help people relate to a situation as if it was their own and help them to engage in ways that facts and figures do not.

Jay Conger, senior research scientist from University of Southern California, suggests some tips to storytelling in an organizational setting, that I believe make storytelling a powerful tool in your patient experience efforts. They include:

1.Keep it short: people tend to retain a story around 2 minutes in length.

2.Focus on 2-3 characters: this provides an opportunity to relate to the individuals involved.

3.Keep it simple: a story should be built around a single message that is clear and understandable.

4.Tell it in the present tense:this allows people to experience as if they are part of the story itself.

5.Build in visual images: people store and retain these images and give a story lasting qualities.

6.Repeat or reinforce a key phrase or concept: this ensures people are clear about the message you are conveying.

A story that I recently heard regarding the patient experience follows this model. This story serves as a great way to convey expected behaviors in a patient room without having to simply list required actions. A nurse enters a patient’s room and finds a spill on the floor near the bed. The nurse excuses herself and makes a quick call to housekeeping to have the spill cleaned. When housekeeping arrives the nurse points out the spill and asks the individual to mop it up. The housekeeper responds that it is just a few drops and that the nurse should have been capable to wipe this up herself. The nurse then argues in fact it was not a drop, but a spill, and therefore it was a housekeeping issue to deal with. As the two continue to argue, the patient grabs the pitcher of water on her bedside table, pours it all on the floor and asks them both, "it is big enough now?” Clearly the expected behaviors and the influence on a potential patient experience were conveyed very effectively through this simple, but powerful story.

There are also stories that reinforce the impact of positive behaviors. One such example was about a high school student who volunteers after school at his local hospital delivering meal trays. One evening the student volunteer was on his dinner delivery rounds. As trained, the student checked the hospital bracelet of the patient before leaving the dinner tray. As he looked up from the bed, he saw that the IV bag had a different name on the label. He immediately notified the nurses who were able to quickly make the appropriate correction. While this patient was not in any significant danger in this specific situation, it reinforces the importance of following protocol and how every individual plays a critical role in the overall experience of patients. By telling a story, we effectively convey this critical message and the lesson has a lasting impact.

At this time of year when stories are so prevalent - stories of joy, of hope and of thanks - there is no better time to identify and frame the stories that represent your facility or healthcare organization. What are the stories you tell about your patient experience efforts (or what stories should you tell)? I encourage you to share your story with us and hope to continue to collect them as we enter the new year. I invite you to attach your story below as a comment to this blog.

I wish you the most joyous of holiday seasons. Here is to a year ahead full of positive stories!

Jason A. Wolf, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Beryl Institute


Related Body of Knowledge courses: Communication.

Tags:  patient experience  storytelling 

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