Patient Safety and the Healing Power of Story

Recently I’ve been having conversations with nonprofit professionals in healthcare about improving safety in hospitals. This led me to two articles by David Bornstein for The New York Times: “Reducing Preventable Harm in Hospitals” and “Hospitals Focus on Doing No Harm.”

In his writing, Bornstein asks: “How can health systems be made safer when success means changing the attitudes and habits of health care professionals at a time when many are overwhelmed and deeply frustrated by all of the demands being made on them? What does it take to get them to urgently embrace new ways of working?”

One key factor for successful change is engaging front line clinicians in peer learning communities. This works best when it is collaborative and storytelling is at its core. Stories reveal small details in the work experience that can make a huge difference in the outcomes. By giving peers the opportunity to coach one another, their unique success stories become concrete solutions which, in turn, get integrated into new or existing systems. Empowering people to create their own improvements to the system will, in the long run, inspire them to welcome change.

Ric Elias, Atul Gawande, Ed Gavagan: Stories about finding meaning in caregiving, healing and facing death.

The healthcare culture must support these changes, and story is the catalyst for transformation. The human brain is wired for story. Cognitive studies have proven that telling and listening to stories enhances learning, memory and understanding. These are essential in building relationships and trust which is crucial for patient safety.

What does trust in healthcare look like? Nurses feel comfortable correcting doctors without fear of reprisal. Patients and family members are engaged in care to alert staff members when they see potential problems. Above all, doctors are more comfortable talking about change.

And it begins with story