How the Stories of Our Lives Can Change Healthcare



First posted on Educate the Young on 12/19/2012

If you’re interested in how to use stories to change your healthcare work, please watch this two-minute video before reading.

In my new favorite magazine, Fast Company, a Co.Create section article, The Heart of Storytelling… recently highlighted how the American Red Cross is using stories of those who have received their services to help share their message and provide information about the work they do. To the credit of both the Red Cross and their ad agency, BBDO New York, the two groups recognized that their original ad campaign using storytelling lacked authenticity and felt forced. So instead, they mailed video cameras to those who could tell the story first hand, and then edited the content to share the words of those who had lived these life-changing events, such as:

Maybe putting a camera, or tools like social media, blogs, email, or good old-fashioned pen and paper in the hands of more patients, allowing them to tell the world about authentic experiences of care will leave a greater impact on those providing care, as well as their peers and consumers of healthcare. We’ve been told by many expert storytellers to share stories that touch the heart to create the change we need. But how long do emotions need to stay charged in order to equal action? And what is it that finally flips the switch to act? Is it unwavering social support or is it that the “character” within the story moves us to action? The suspension of disbelief created in a movie theater is fleeting, and the change needed in healthcare is lasting and challenging. Do we need to be reminded of these patient stories over and over, or will we become desensitized over time?

In an April 2012 Social Science & Medicine article, Aspirin Use and Cardiovascular Events, Strully & Fowler et al showed again how social networks influence health behavior–specifically cardiovascular health in this study. Their research showed that the cardiovascular event of a same sex friend or family member–i.e. a woman’s female friend or a man’s brother–was shown to increase the likelihood that each would adopt aspirin therapy to prevent cardiovascular disease. Their research also considered the confounding factor that those who actually took aspirin might be influenced by the same well-meaning physician–however this turned out not to be the case. The story this data is telling is that health behavior is influenced more so by the story lines of friends and family’s lives. At least for me, this research implies my health behavior will change when one of my girlfriends has a stroke. This research also implies that maybe we don’t have to wait for someone “like us” to have a cardiovascular event before we change the story. Rather, we can create a new story altogether and decide on key people within a social network to target with a treatment, or positive health behavior, that spreads like good gossip or a bad virus.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Stories can change the world.
    I would, however, argue that there’s a central flaw in stories that are strictly testimonials, and despite how the Red Cross and their agency want to spin it, their stories are still testimonials. In her TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story” novelist Chimamanda Adichie addresses the flaw, warning that if we only hear a single voice about another person or country (or service or product), we risk a critical misunderstanding.

    My intent is not to lecture on the value of testimonials. It brings me to your point about affecting long term behaviour change. Adichie’s insight that there are many overlapping stories that form a narrative is much more authentic and resonant with how we live our lives and what affects us. Artist and photographer Judith Leitner captured a decade of her mother, Rosa, Alzheimer’s journey with the lens of her camera. Leitner tells us, “Her story became, through my camera’s lens, a richly textured narrative about family, everyday life, relationships and home and hospital landscapes. Love, memory, change, mind, beauty, the photograph, light and shadow, hands, windows and space and time- above all time- became themes and questions that wove themselves in and out, over and under in my visual journal; indeed, these themes were natural metaphors for Rosa’s illness. Throughout my story, the camera held my hand, allowing me as daughter and artist to stand back and to step in – the duality of detachment and intimacy.”

    Leitner’s photo documentary has been exhibited at numerous Alzheimer’s conferences, her photos are being used to inform research based drama, she is a frequent speaker. Her story continuously resonates because it shows us how complex the illness experience is. For long term behaviour change, the story, and those like it, needs to have sustaining meaning over the long term touching the emotions the audience is feeling.

    Authenticity isn’t the only element necessary in the story. Truth is also required. And truth is that in the universe that is health, unlike a testimonial, not every story will have a triumphal ending. You can follow Judith’s journey here