This question is now being asked of Veterans in Madison, Wisconsin – and soon ten other locations around our country – through a program called, My Life My Story, an oral history project aimed at improving the healthcare of Veterans through the healing and transformative power of story. It is a project based on the premise that when a patient connects with a health care provider in a real and authentic way, that connection ultimately leads to better care and better overall health. It’s a simple, yet powerful idea that carries tremendous implications to this revered, but sometimes marginalized, group of people, as well as our society as a whole.
How many of us feel truly connected to our doctors? And how much does this connection matter? According to a study completed by a team of doctors at Mass General Hospital in 2009, and recorded in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the answers to these questions matter – a lot. In fact, “connectedness” proved to be a greater factor than age, ethnicity, sex, and race in determining whether patients were likely to complete recommended testing for preventative and chronic illness care – such as mammograms, cholesterol measurements in patients with diabetes, breast and cervical cancer screenings etc. Patients who were measured to be “connected” to a specific physician (as opposed to a practice or not connected at all) were significantly more likely to receive “guideline-consistent care”.
This research also found, however, that many patients did NOT have a close, continuous relationship with a specific physician, and therefore were not receiving the best possible care. While some responsibility for this might fall on the patients themselves – their willingness and motivation to follow through – the study implied that much fault could be attributed to the varying models of modern health care that don’t allow for a meaningful connection to exist: how often patients are shuttled from one specialist to another, receive episodic care from other doctors, or visit urgent care clinics where they are virtually unknown. Either way, the algorithm used to measure this patient-doctor relationship reveals a sad commentary on the meaning of connectedness: one key defining element measured was how likely a doctor was to recognize a patient as “my patient”.
If simply being recognized by one’s doctor can impact a person’s health, imagine the transformative impact of being connected in a real and authentic way. Imagine if your doctor knew not just your name and your symptoms, but knew the challenges and the joys you had faced in your life, and the specific details that brought you to your current visit. Which brings us to our Veterans in Madison, Wisconsin…
My Life My Story was launched in 2013, and has afforded over 600 Veterans at the VA Hospital in Madison the opportunity to spend an hour of their time sharing their life story. Interviews are conducted by writers and therapists, as well as trained community volunteers who, with permission, turn these stories into 1- 2 page summaries to be included with patients’ medical charts, so that they can ultimately land in the hands of the people who care for them – their doctors, nurses, specialists, and other members of their medical team.
The benefits to this program are innumerable:
- Embedded in these stories may be key details related to, and revealing of, a patient’s medical history – both mental and physical.
- Health care professionals begin to see patients in a more holistic way, understanding who they are as people and creating a new and invaluable level of trust.
- These stories can be shared among a medical team – alleviating the need to retell what may be difficult information to convey, as well as creating a greater connectedness between the patient and the many people who make up his or her healthcare world.
And as the study discussed above suggests, with more connectedness may come more thorough, preventative, and more expedited care.
Beyond even these valuable outcomes, however, are the benefits derived from story-telling itself. Giving people the chance to tell their own story – to weave together the pieces of their personal narrative in their own voice, and be heard – is transformative in its own right. Studies have shown that the sharing of stories – both the telling and the listening – can lead to improved health and well-being: an increase in self-esteem, memory, cognition, and a decrease in depression and blood pressure.
Furthermore, the stories of these particular men and women are unique. Without a doubt, the voices of our Veterans carry wisdom that is worthy of being truly heard and honored.
Eilleen Ahearn, the psychiatrist who launched My Life My Story, sums up the power and potential of this innovative approach best: “You are no longer just a collection of symptoms. You’re a human being.”
To be a human being. To share one’s humanity through story with the very people who embrace and dictate the path of our health and well-being…. What more could we ask for from our healthcare system?
-Image taken from the Veterans Health Administration: Veterans Adding Life Story To Medical Records.