How stories impact trust, empathy, and patient adherence

Consider the following scenario: a patient comes in to see you—an older male, overweight, with a family history of diabetes. Do you: 

A) Hand him a brochure that warns of the dangers of pre-diabetes and lists risk factors, or 

B) Tell him a story about another patient who was embarrassed to take his grandson swimming, and so began an exercise program that enabled him to feel better and lose 17 percent of his body weight, an amount shown to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 85 percent?

If you suspect that option B is more compelling to patients, you’re right. “Stories motivate people in ways that statistics never will,” wrote Jenn Maer, creative director at Omada Health, an online program aimed at reducing risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. By the way, the above story is about a real patient named Rodney

Storytelling plays a pivotal role in health care. Here’s why, and how to make sure you’re using it effectively with your patients. 

The power of stories to engage people

There’s a reason TED talks are so popular and most PowerPoint presentations are not. TED speakers deliver short, compelling narratives to convey their ideas. The power is in the storytelling, according to Geoffrey Berwind, a professional storytelling consultant and trainer for entrepreneurs and companies worldwide. In a Forbes interview, he noted that Steve Jobs was one of the pioneers of this style of presentation, using simple images and concepts to support his verbal storytelling.

Health care, like other businesses, has begun to embrace storytelling as a way to engage patients, their families, and clinicians and build trust. 

While the business world has embraced it for some time, there is a movement toward using storytelling more in health care. For one thing, “it’s an incredible way to engage patients and staff, family, and clinicians,” said Martha Hayward, director of public and patient engagement for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. 

One example of an effective way to use storytelling is during the clinical interaction, said Hayward. When a doctor “shares a story with a patient or family about a similar patient or family—without breaking any HIPAA laws—what you’re demonstrating is the kind of relationship that they can expect from you … It’s a wonderful way to make a connection and build trust.” 

The science behind why storytelling works

There is a scientific explanation for why storytelling affects us so powerfully. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, explains the role of the neurochemical oxytocin. It is produced “when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”

By taking blood draws, Zak’s team of researchers tested whether watching video narratives would cause participants’ brains to make oxytocin. “We found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis,” he wrote. “Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Character-driven stories cause the brain to produce oxytocin, which boosts empathy. Patients are also more likely to remember information presented to them in story form. 

The power of storytelling to inspire action makes it an effective strategy for patient adherence, too. Patients are more likely to remember information presented to them in story form rather than a list of printed instructions. For example, see this video on preparing parents and young patients for pediatric surgery. “Human memory is strongly enhanced by story, and there is a greater likelihood that we will retain the information shared through a story than information presented through detail points, which are more likely to be altered or forgotten,” according to HealthLeaders Media

'Human memory is strongly enhanced by story, and there is a greater likelihood that we will retain the information shared through a story than information presented through detail points, which are more likely to be altered or forgotten,'… Click To Tweet

What makes effective patient testimonials

Patient testimonials are a natural way to utilize storytelling in health care. In order to be effective, and HIPAA-compliant, you’ll need to do some homework first. Choose the right patients to convey the messages you want to share, get their written authorization, and guide them with targeted questions to answer in their own words. For more information on this, see our previous post, How to Capture Compelling Patient Testimonials.

“We’re trying to change the conversation from ‘Let me fix you when you’re broken’ to ‘Let me help you live a more active, healthier lifestyle.’” —  UCHealth’s chief marketing officer, Manny Rodriguez

Some health care organizations hire directors, videographers, and experts from other industries to lead their storytelling efforts. Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing officer at UCHealth, sources non-health care talent from Disney, ad agencies, CenturyLink, and even the Seattle Seahawks, reported AdAge. A reason for this, Rodriguez said, is that “We’re trying to change the conversation from ‘Let me fix you when you’re broken’ to ‘Let me help you live a more active, healthier lifestyle.’” 

Two UCHealth videos that showcase powerful storytelling are “Walking Tall: Jim’s Fight” and “I Did.” 

Are there ways you could use stories in your practice that would benefit your patients? For example, could you tell a nervous cataract surgery patient about a similar patient who had the procedure and can now watch her grandson play baseball? Could you film a testimonial about how a balloon sinuplasty helped one patient experience relief from chronic sinusitis?

Neuroscientist Zak wrote, “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts – by first attracting their brains.”

Rendia’s educational videos leverage visual learning and the power of storytelling to keep your patients engaged in care.


To learn more about the impact of narrated animations on patient retention and satisfaction, check out our infographic: “Does the Type of Patient Education Matter?”