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Tell Me a Story

May 28, 2019

“Storytime.” It means eager young children fidgeting on a colorful carpet, gathered around a picture book while a patient adult reads aloud. It also means happier, healthier patients and engaged, rejuvenated caregivers. Humans are hard-wired for stories; we love to hear them, tell them, and find new ways to share them. This innate desire for stories separates us from other mammals, serves many roles in our continued psychological development, and—perhaps surprisingly—might hold the key to bettering the patient experience in your facility.

While we’ve long known that listening to stories captivates the imagination and helps patients recover, increasing numbers of studies show that patients who are encouraged to tell their own stories and reminisce on meaningful life events shift to more successful recovery and a favorable patient experience than those who do not. These storytelling experiences hold especially true for neurological patients facing communication challenges, such as those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

In addition to physiological benefits, encouraging patients to tell caregivers about their lives also improves patient-caregiver relationships, as shared stories deepen trust and build relationships based on life experiences. No matter the setting, storytelling connects people of all walks of life; it’s an inherent human need and allows for stronger connections between patients, providers, coworkers, and the family and friends visiting their loved ones in the hospital. Beyond helping patients get to know their providers, storytelling connects coworkers. If you found out that the gentleman in room 12 once worked at NASA during the moon landing, you’d likely share that interesting tidbit with a fellow caregiver. Not only have you helped your coworker connect with the patient, you and the coworker may just connect over shared interested in space exploration. Sharing what makes your life meaningful helps as well; as we share what enriches our own lives, we in turn enrich the lives around us.

Telling or hearing personal stories also strengthens mental health. Remember how happy you felt as a child during your bedtime story? Storytelling also comforts patients who face significant mental burdens, such as those who have received a critical or worrisome diagnosis. These patients are at high risk for depression, statistically dampening their recovery. A sense of purpose, combats that depression, offering the patients a healthier outlook and typically better outcomes. Storytelling as a method of examining one’s past and looking toward a hopeful future helps patients maintain better mental health in the face of life-threatening illnesses. Similarly, hospice patients who are given the opportunity to share and even record key moments from their life are often happy to do so and grateful to engage with those willing to listen. These human connections offer perspective and meaning for life at any stage, even difficult ones.

The connective and compassionate value of shared experiences cannot be overstated. Just as many people suffer from feeling alone in a city or office or room full of people, a hospital’s busy population does not offer reprieve from the sinking feeling of isolation, especially for patients. And though physicians and nurses may want to spend time chatting with patients, finding the time to do so presents another level of challenges. However, the labor of getting to know patients doesn’t necessarily need to fall on physicians and nurses. As your organization’s volunteer pool expands to include more working, educated adults, hospitals have the growing opportunity to engage the skilled good Samaritans as “patient listeners.” Volunteers are often happy to chat with patients, especially when given a bit of guidance on the right kinds of questions to ask. Guiding and prompting conversation doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but with help, it can be a rewarding experience for almost anyone. Don’t be afraid to try expanding your volunteer program into storytelling or find ways existing volunteers can incorporate conversations with patients into their regular duties. Too often, caregivers are surprised by what they learn about patients in their obituaries. By uncovering one remarkable diamond in a patient’s past, you’ve enhanced the patient-provider relationship, giving that patient a better shot at healing and reminding yourself of the reason you feel called to heal.

Further Reading:

The power of storytelling

Training Patient and Family Storytellers and Patient and Family Faculty