The Power of Patient Stories

Originally posted on July 29, 2012

By Ulfat Shaikh

Last week, I spoke to a class of 100+ new medical students at their orientation. This is the class of 2016 and I had 60 minutes to talk to them about health care quality. Last year was the first time I did this — talk to students even before they started medical school about the imperative for doctors to not only continually and critically look at and improve their care, but also to pay close attention to the system of care around them.

Last year’s talk was different. I thought that students would find the science of improvement intriguing. After all, these students loved and excelled in science, and were obviously highly organized, which is why and how they were here. So I spoke about Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles, Lean, Six Sigma, and control charts. If this was not enough, I also spoke about process mapping and data-driven care. But I perceived that my own enthusiasm was not exactly contagious that day in the room.

Thinking more about what I should focus on during this year’s hour on quality improvement, I realized that these young students, at the average age of 23, did not decide on medicine as a career because they were excited about processes or data or systems. They were here most of all to help people, to listen to patients’ stories, and to heal. So this year my talk was different. It was called “First, do no harm,” and it centered around a story that is now more than 10 years old, but still teaches us so much about the fallibility of clinicians and our responsibility to do more.

The Josie King Story, a video of a mother speaking at a conference about her daughter’s death, brings a lump to my throat as many times as I see it. This was the first time I had shown the video to such a large class of students. As I scanned the room after the video ended, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. Josie’s mother, Sorrel, spoke about her daughter’s death and the series of system failures that led to a breakdown of her medical care during her hospitalization. She spoke about communication and patient-centered care (or lack thereof), and of looking back to learn, but then focusing on looking forward to improve. She spoke about proactively putting in systems of care to prevent failures in care from ever occurring again.

This is the message we want future doctors to hear — the message that they are fallible and will make mistakes… but that there are ways to mitigate and even prevent such errors from happening if they only keep their minds and hearts open and listen to their patients.

The National Health System (NHS) in the UK has used patient stories to inspire their clinicians to improve their care. The NHS uses “Discovery Interviews” to gather patient narratives to inform quality improvements, and to understand what really matters to patients and their caregivers.

This year we implemented an innovation in our curriculum for first-year medical students. As part of their home visit program, students asked patients about their experiences with the health care system and patients’ ideas on how we could improve their care. Our goal is not only for students to learn from patient stories, but also for us to share these stories and ideas with our quality improvement department and committees to inform change.

–Ulfat Shaikh, MD, MPH, MS is director of health care quality integration at the University of California Davis Schools of Health. She blogs about health care quality improvement at Pulse.

0 thoughts on “The Power of Patient Stories

  1. Thanks for writing this. I think your experience really speaks to the power of stories and compelling narratives for influencing the way people think. As a medical student myself, I can say that I did choose medicine as a career because I am excited by processes, data, and systems. Abstracting the visceral human experience into analyzable data is a deeply human experience, and it would be dangerous to forget how tightly linked processes and systems are to the reality of patient care.

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