​Storytelling in Healthcare: Shaping your Message for Change

October 14, 2015 Laura Kavanagh

Have you ever received an email that just seemed to never end and had no real purpose? Or wondered why you no one ever wrote back to an email you put so much time and energy in to? 

There were laughs all around when Virginia Carver posed these questions to the audience of risk management professionals at the recent CHARM Colorado conference. I know I’ve been guilty of this and have cringed when I’ve gone back to re-read what I (shouldn’t) have sent. I felt a sense of relief when it appeared that most people in the audience had experienced this too.
One of the key topics Virginia focused on in her presentation was how to write so your message has the most impact. My role at RL does not deal with the livelihood and well-being of others, or the quality of care that my hospital provides them and the patient’s perception of that care. However, we all share a need to deliver our message to stakeholders. Whether my team is pitching a new marketing campaign, or you're delivering the latest report on risk management initiatives, both messages need to be received and understood to enable follow-up. How do we do this? 

To put it simply: we tell a story.

We’ve all know what makes a good story: one that draw up previous experiences, or memories of a particular moment in time or a loved one. We instantly connect with the message as we can personally relate to it. Dan Pink famously refers to this at the ‘Pixar Pitch’. The storyteller tells this story with the intent to connect with the audience on an emotional level. He or she knows to set the tone and build up towards the moment of impact where everything comes together, so you get an immediate connection and thoughts of ‘yes, I get this and understand it’. 

How can this be applied in a healthcare environment? Let’s use an example:

Your hospital has experienced cutbacks and your patient safety team is stretched thin. You notice that you have less to spend with patients. Following up with requests takes longer and there's a growing discontent with both patients and colleagues.

To make your manager understand your concerns, you need her to see what is truly happening. When gathering information to build your case, think to yourself: what do my hospital's executives see when they walk through the halls of this hospital? What are their biggest concerns? What are the things that keep them up at night? Consider the root of the problem, the risks involved, the potential outcome if no action is taken, and your goals. 

Use these questions to define what your story will be. Perhaps it’s around one patient, one incident, or the greater good of the organization. Carefully constructing your concern into something that can be used as a pillar for discussion can be much more powerful than “We need to hire more staff because we’re too busy”. Let's reframe the scenario above in a way that opens up greater conversation amongst your team, managers, and colleagues.

“I’ve worked in this hospital for 15 years. Every day, I have seen patients come in and out of the hospital and I have always felt confident in the quality of care and treatment that they have received. Ever since we’ve experienced these budget cuts, I see a growing discontent amongst the staff and the patients. It’s caused resentment, arguments, and exhaustion. One day, these patients are going to decide to go elsewhere because they see that we aren’t up the standards they we used to be. I’m concerned because that day is coming soon until we do something about this.”

Consider what questions you want your story to trigger. For example, “Why do you feel that this is more urgent than other departmental needs?”, “We’ve trained the staff to be able to handle the change. Why is this an issue now?”, “What change would you like to see to improve this?”If you’ve been able to open this conversation up, now is your chance to collaborate and work together to make it happen.

I’m not an expert in the healthcare field. However, I do know that for those of you who do, you have some incredible and powerful experiences under your belt that the world deserves to hear.
Take a chance and make them heard.

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