Screenshot from NorthShore Stories

A HEALTHY AMOUNT OF STORYTELLING: How Hospitals Use the Patient Narrative

By Catherine Gianaro & Dre V. Sanchez
Students in NMS 509: Digital Storytelling, Summer 2015

Glioblastoma. Fibromuscular dysplasia. Auditory neuropathy. Subjects like these are not easy to explain, which is why hospitals and healthcare systems rely on patient stories to communicate what their organization has to offer.

We looked at more than 30 hospitals and healthcare systems websites and social media content to better understand how storytelling is used in this industry. Nearly all institutions use patient success stories to “advocate” on the hospitals’ behalf. This type of storytelling is successful because it creates an advocacy-style of communication, rather than focusing on company-boasting advertising or marketing. It enables the viewer to identify with the patient, and in turn, create an emotional trust or bond with the organization (which is the goal of every company, no matter the industry).

A story back to wellness

The majority of U.S. hospitals and healthcare systems are nonprofit institutions (about 80%) but still rely heavily on advertising and marketing to meet their business goals. Although the focus of the storytelling is on the patient and his/her journey back to good health, the ultimate aim is to highlight the institution as the hero. Patient storytelling can be viewed as advocacy for better health, but in the end, is still institutional PR.

NorthShore University HealthSystem uses patient stories to highlight the type of care they offer. For example, Hannah getting her voice back.

But not all storytelling is patient-centric (aka, advocacy-based, or, when the patient serves as an advocate of the hospital). Institutions use other storytellers to communicate to the public, in both video and print formats. Before directing the majority of efforts on the patient story, most healthcare institutions highlighted their physicians. The doctor profile is still a staple for most hospitals, but now their expertise is usually highlighted through a patient and getting them back to health. And sometimes, the patient doesn’t get better unfortunately, but still received the best possible care from the best possible specialist, like the gripping story of a Mike who was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia by Dr. Brad Dickerson of Mass General Hospital. According to Mike’s widow, Dr. Dickerson was the best choice for Mike.

Organizations add to their own narrative by creating stories on the latest news or community outreach projects, highlighting the same type of information that would traditionally run in the company’s annual report. For example, Northwestern Medicine’s “Community Matters” features community stories such as the Chinatown Outreach initiative, which provides Hepatitis B screenings for patients in need. (However, these stories are more aligned with promotional PR than personal narratives, but they do add to the overall “story” of the organization.)

Another avenue healthcare organizations use for storytelling are videos for patient education and procedures, as well as patient support groups, such as Cancer Centers of America’s “Cancer Fighters”—a series of video testimonials touting the work of available cancer support groups. This series is paired with other testimonials, but of cancer survivors, like Rod Echols.

The how and where of hospital storytelling

Healthcare organizations use a variety of types of media to communicate their advocacy storytelling. The most popular type is still the traditional print story—feature writing with accompanying photos. Nearly all hospitals have versions of these on their website, most repeated word-for-word content from printed materials, but some generated just for web content, like Mass General Hospital’s patient story page.

The growing trend of storytelling in healthcare is the first-person video profiles, often in a series of “patient journeys,” like Peter’s story from St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital. There are 13 videos describing the journey of his illness and the road back to health. Often times, the patient story is just depicted in one video, like Hannah’s story above. Others incorporate video and photos to tell the story, like Mike’s wife (also above).

St. Jude’s uses a series of first-person patient narratives to tell the story of the journey back to health.

Some institutions solicit (first-person) patient self-submissions, such as the photo-and-text essays from Dana Farber’s “What Our Patients and Families Say” series. These are usually short, patient-written submissions that just need to be proof-read and approved by the organization before added to the website. It’s a new twist on the traditional kudos letter-writing.

Besides text-and-photo stories (including e-newsletters or digital publications), digital and video series, and self-submission essays, patient stories also are used for lead-ins for web pages/sections, like Duke Medicine’s “Living with One Eye,” which serves as the “hero pic” for the department’s web section. Each department page previews a patient story, and then links it to the full story on the hospital blog.

All of these stories—whether patient, physician or community—are linked, edited, duplicated or otherwise repeated on the organization’s social media platform. For the healthcare industry, that means the “Big Five”:

  1. Twitter (tweets links to new stories on the web)
  2. Facebook (posts story links)
  3. Pinterest (links stories of the same interest/subject)
  4. Blogs (many print stories live on the blog and are linked elsewhere)
  5. YouTube channels (most often house the digital/video stories linked throughout the website)

The race for ever-growing social media

Some organizations are pushing the social media boundaries and are using other platforms to communicate their stories. Advocate Health Care employs a hashtag campaigns to carry their advocacy message for annual mammograms and breast cancer awareness with their #StoriesOfTheGirls. The “conversation” is far-reaching with a separate website, Twitter feed, Pinterest board, etc.

Advocate Health Care created a wide-reaching hashtag campaign with #StoriesOfTheGirls.

Whether it’s Google+ (Mayo Clinic), Flickr (Detroit Medical Center), Instagram (John Hopkins Medicine), Tumblr (Sarasota Memorial Hospital) or the typical “Big Five” platforms, hospitals and healthcare organizations have more than one avenue to share their story. A story that usually is told through the experience of a patient, and that usually lives on the website, but is linked, liked and shared in variety of other ways.