Storytelling and the Reality of Medicine

Digging through the web archives of storytelling in healthcare and medicine, I’m finding what once may have been considered an unlikely marriage of various industries, including healthcare, with leadership in storytelling. For example, in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article, Storytelling That Moves People, I found an interview with Robert McKee, who I referred to in the recent post, How Do Great Storytellers Create Empathy? McKee, aka The Script Doctor, has instructed Microsoft employees for years on the elements of story to improve adoption of business cases, and has consulted with many corporations who, when giving life to the story behind their spreadsheets and business plans, were more likely to gain Wall Street support, also known as venture capital funding, also known as money. By creating a storyline around products and services that have yet to be proven, potential funders find reason to believe in the potential of a 3-D printer that might one day generate new veins or vital organs, or in a molecule that may cure Alzheimer’s disease.  For the skeptics, it’s not manipulation by pulling on heartstrings either, as McKee so eloquently puts it, “the fact is that statistics are used to tell lies and damn lies, while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown—witness Enron and WorldCom.”

How does this link to healthcare? The storyline in medicine has lacked what reality TV executives have found drive prime time ratings. Instead of being open and honest with patients and families around the events that occur during their care–the mistakes that are made or almost made, the lives that are lost as well as saved, and the fear of litigation that surrounds both–humanity has been slowly stripped from the patient-provider relationship. If providers cannot admit to themselves they are fallible, how can they authentically relate to a patient who is in their most vulnerable state? Care providers have an opportunity to meet another person, just like themselves in many ways, at a time they are most in need–when the masks we wear come off, and the walls we have built around the stories of our lives go down, if only for the time of illness. These real life stories have the power to change both provider and patient, and therefore healthcare, if we open ourselves up and face what is really happening, in the moment. As McKee says:

The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side. We would all rather be lotus-eaters, but life will not allow it. The energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully.

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