Storytelling in health care

A few months into a new job as Food and Health Project Manager for Interior Health (the health authority that serves British Columbia’s southeast region), I was asked to lead a storytelling workshop at the Population Health conference.

The invitation was not totally out of the blue. Storytelling had been part of my community development work in northern B.C.

I figured a three-hour workshop would be easy, though the audience might be skeptical of the value of storytelling in a health context. I was well prepared until, a week before the conference, the terms changed.

The organizers had shifted their thinking. Storytelling would no longer be a sideshow. It would be the main attraction.

Two and a half days with administrators, managers, front-line staff…that’s an enormous investment of resources. It had to be worthwhile.

Naramata Centre

Naramata Centre, setting for the workshop

I had used a narrative approach in all my community development work. I had promoted storytelling as an essential part of any non-profit’s bag of tools. What I hadn’t done was preach the storytelling gospel to management and staff of a bureaucracy with 18,000 employees. I felt like a very small frog in an ocean-sized pool.

We started the first session sitting in a large circle. I looked at all my new colleagues and wondered if I could pull it off.

Introductions began. One of the first to speak was Dr. Paul Hasselback, the Chief Medical Health Officer. Whatever he said would help set the tone for the event.

I was nervous. If he were skeptical of the value of storytelling, others might be less inclined to set aside any doubts they had brought with them.

I needn’t have worried. A year before, he had participated in an invitational conference in in Montréal. Sponsored by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, the focus of the conference had been…storytelling. [Details below.]

Dr. Hasselback talked about storytelling in the context of research, evaluation, and policy direction. He said we needed to be better at translating our work for a lay audience. We needed to tell better stories.

I don’t know if the whole room relaxed, but I certainly did. This group of overly busy people had just been given permission to become storytellers. I had no doubt I was the right person to plant seeds in the soil Dr. Hasselback had loosened for me.

The evaluations were glowing, but I was most pleased by a direct and immediate result. Two days after the conference, one of the attendees opened a meeting with a story. This wasn’t just any meeting. It was a meeting called to deal with a particularly volatile issue. Staff came ready to pounce.

Naramata Centre waterfront

Beach at the Naramata Centre in British Columbia

The story, a metaphor for the controversy at hand, poured oil on the proverbial troubled waters. The temperature of the room dropped from boiling to warm. An explosive situation was defused.

Over the next few years, I had many opportunities to embed storytelling in the corporate culture of the health authority. I know I would have done it anyway, however the initial workshop had turned out. Storytelling has been part of my work since before I even knew what to call it.

But it made a difference to everything that came afterward that my new colleagues “got” it and gave me permission to share it.

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In March 2003 the annual conference of the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation brought together “150 managers, policy makers, and health services researchers to understand the use and abuse of stories, but also to enhance their ability to effectively use stories and anecdotes to bring research to life and encourage evidence-based decisions.”

The conference report, “Once Upon a Time…The Use and Abuse of Storytelling and Anecdote in the Health Sector”, is organized in four sections:

  1. The Abuse of Stories and Anecdotes in the Health System
  2. Stories and Anecdotes in Health Services Research, Management, and Policy
  3. Characteristics of Effective Stories in the Health Sector
  4. Towards Evidence-Based Stories

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