A good patient story puts readers in someone else’s shoes to show them what’s possible. Learn how to harness this unique power to boost your brand.
Humans are born storytellers. Stories help us learn, understand complex concepts and connect with people from whom we might feel worlds apart. We’re hardwired to create and respond to stories, which activate our power of recall like few other things can.
Storytelling is an ancient form of communication, but it’s more relevant than ever. Athletes, scientists, physicians, marketers and countless others have recognized its power to bridge divides and build emotional connections. For healthcare consumers, in a time when a desire for authenticity reigns supreme, patient stories are in high demand, and some of the most respected brands in the industry, including Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, devote entire websites to them.
As a writer, nothing I create gives me more satisfaction than a good patient story. I love talking with patients about their lives and the people and activities that motivate them. I relish the challenge of forming a coherent, compelling and inspiring narrative about an experience—a stroke, perhaps, or a struggle with joint pain or a cancer journey—that has likely changed someone’s life. Every time a patient tells me I’ve done justice to his or her story, I’m reminded why I love to write.
Here are five keys to success I’ve learned in 11 years and counting of telling patient stories.
#1: Choose your subject wisely.
The quality of a patient story rests on whom you choose to spotlight. As a storyteller, I want a patient who is eager to share her story and enthusiastic about the role your hospital or health system played in her care. Do your homework to ensure her healthcare experience includes the elements that make for a good story, including overcoming adversity with the help of treatment to achieve a cherished goal, such as returning to running or going on vacation with a spouse.
Your organization’s physicians, nurses, rehabilitation therapists, social workers and other frontline providers are invaluable resources for identifying patients with compelling stories to share.
#2: Nail the interview.
Your choice of patient can make or break a story—so, too, can the interview.
For the patient, sharing her story with me is a trust exercise. Opening up about an experience that may include emotionally painful moments can be difficult. I’m always mindful to respect the interviewee’s vulnerability by asking questions that are sensitive in tone and subject and listening intently.
I like to conduct interviews conversationally, and I’m not afraid to (respectfully) interrupt to ask for additional details. Many individuals need gentle prompting to share information that is crucial to a good patient story, such as their hobbies, the chronology of events and their emotions when they learned of a diagnosis.
#3: Hold up a mirror to readers.
The most impactful patient story is one in which the reader can see a bit of herself—in short, the reader needs to empathize with the patient. Certain elements of the story are key to achieving this goal.
To ensure I tell a relatable story, I ask the patient to be descriptive and detailed about how an illness or injury affected her life, what the symptoms felt like, what went through her mind when she received the diagnosis and treatment plan, and how her life improved as a result of treatment. Those are the humanizing, I-know-what-that’s-like, details that allow readers to feel like participants in the story instead of observers. That can also convince readers that they could enjoy similarly successful results.
For examples of the life-changing impact a patient story can have, watch our 30-minute webinar on advancing marketing strategy through storytelling.
#4: Weave healthcare experts into the story instead of putting them front and center.
The patient is the star of the story, but highlighting the supporting cast adds a lot to the tale. Including quotes from the physicians and other providers who cared for the patient positions them as experts, showcases their compassion and provides an opportunity to allow a professional to make the patient-as-exemplar point, e.g. “This patient’s case perfectly illustrates the comprehensive care we provide to patients who undergo joint replacement, and the success that’s possible in our program.”
#5: Practice good stewardship.
I think of myself as a steward of the patient stories I write. When patients open up to me, they’re trusting me with part of themselves, often with the hope that by doing so, they may help someone facing a similar health crisis whom they’ll probably never meet. Turning that hope into a reality is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. We marketers owe it to patients to get their stories right. Do that, and your organization will reap the benefits.
Some patient stories stick with me, like the one I wrote more than a year ago about a woman who overcame a lifelong fear of getting in the water during aquatic physical therapy for pain and reduced mobility. From time to time, I think of her courage when I’m faced with a daunting task. In that way, her story has become part of me.
That’s my story.
About the Author: As a senior copywriter at True North Custom, Thomas Crocker has written hundreds of patient stories designed to humanize healthcare brands and drive revenue growth. He was selected to participate in the National Institutes of Health’s Medicine in the Media Course and earned a bachelor’s degree from Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, where he garnered several honors for writing.
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