Spiritual Principles

The Power of Story in the Patient Encounter

Stories are a powerful communication tool perhaps underused by doctors. A story that connects with a patient can have a potentially transformative effect.

The other day I met with Jeremy, a gentlemen in about his 60s. He was formerly in Utah taking care of his child who passed away. He had family in Northern Idaho and wanted to come up here and enjoy the remaining years of his life. He was telling me about the difficulty of his disease that remained uncontrolled. Jeremy was on all the medications at maximum dosage for peripheral arterial disease (PAD). He had 2 surgeries for PAD. If symptoms worsened he would require another surgery. However, the surgery could only be done so many times. Eventually he would need an amputation of his leg if the symptoms persisted.

As I shared with him on our first visit that I had a way of not only halting this disease process but even reversing it, he looked at me and said, Doc, I had good care. My doctors were excellent. In fact, they were over at the University of Utah. Do you know better than the University of Utah?

Why don’t you stick around and find out? I replied.

On our second visit I shared with him the story of the young surgeon, Joe Crowe from the book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.

Dr. Crowe had finished a day of surgery when he began to have chest pain. A coronary angiogram showed blockage in the distal third of the left anterior descending artery. Unfortunately, his anatomy precluded him from having a stent or open heart surgery. Aside from medications he had no good medical treatment options. At age 40, a husband and father of three small children, Dr. Crowe slipped into a depression. He already exercised, did not use tobacco and had a relatively low cholesterol count of 156 mg/dL. Dr. Joe Crowe was fortunate to talk to Dr. Esselstyn about his research regarding a plant-based diet. For the first time Dr. Crowe was filled with hope.

For two and a half years, Dr. Crowe stuck to the plant-based diet. Now Dr. Crowe was a busy professional under considerable stress so when he was having a recurrence of chest pain, his cardiologist worried that his heart disease had progressed so an angiogram was done. This is what they found.

As you can see in the study, the coronary artery disease was reversed.

One of the most effective ways we can communicate with patients is through story. Here are 3 reasons that explain why.

1. Stories access the emotions.

When you tell a story it engages not just the frontal lobe but also gets into the limbic system. The limbic system is where we experience emotions. So stories access the emotions. The right emotions can begin to motivate patients to change their lifestyle.

2. Stories create empathy.

When you hear stories of suffering, you begin to imagine what it would be like to suffer like the main character. As a result, a good story provides a powerful connection between the storyteller and the listener.

3. Stories make another reality possible.

Stories can create new worlds for individuals. Jerry came up to Northern Idaho and expected to die after a few years. Now he could look forward to not just more years of living but a better quality of life.

I shared the story of Joe Crowe with Jeremy and showed him the angiogram. I looked at him and said, Jerry, you know what else that is? That’s hope. Because that story can also be your story. Jesus said I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly. Right now you’re not living abundantly. But you can. You certainly can.

Jeremy’’s eyes were filled with wonder. At last he had hope.

Are there stories that you share with your patients that serve as a powerful communication tool?

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  • Reply Jonathon March 8, 2017 at 11:13 pm

    Great article! The most successful communicators use stories to make their key points STICK! I’ve used this identical story to motivate change in the lives of a few of my patients. There are so many amazing stories from the lives of our patients, I wish I could remember them so that I can share the most relevant illustration when I am trying to inspire change. Thanks for sharing, Andrew!

    • Reply Andrew Roquiz March 9, 2017 at 10:43 pm

      Yes! That’s why I believe in writing stories down especially ones that can be effective for communicating messages or principles. I can easily forget the details. But once in down on paper somewhere it becomes a good resource 🙂

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