The Power of Story and Listening at the 8th Annual Body Computing Conference

What can healthcare learn from Hollywood?

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Do you feel inspired by a good story? We all do, “because our brains are hard wired for stories,” explains Ed Saxon at the 8th Annual Body Computing Conference.

“Stories are how we learn about history, morality and science – i.e. Issac Newton.”

Our brain is the “biggest neural pathway for having emotional, lasting, sticky experiences [that] connect with [a] story.”

As Dr. Leslie Saxon, the Executive Director the USC Center for Body Computing says, “We are trying to give healthcare the Hollywood treatment.”

Bringing the Hollywood analogy to medical devices, Ed Saxon explains, “Stories matter for medical devices on a screen, too.” Medical device is a genre specialty similar to Alfred Hitchcock, because “We carry around a lot of fear about our health. We know this story does not end well.”

He continues, “health stories have an A plot, and the B plot is the character.” You can imagine that the “A plot in health is, ‘Will I get better?’ and the B plot is, ‘How can I get faster into the wellness category?’”

How can we learn from Hollywood and apply it to medical devices and other healthcare applications?

Ed Saxon explains that the tools become useful if the story can:

  1. Connect to emotion.
  2. Make online tools the lifesaver, and recast the health story from a scary thriller for sick patients to a comeback story – for healthy people to make their story into a heroic quest.
  3. Make the digital helper (coach) a special character – maybe like our best friend.
  4. Share with others. That is the key; we love to share because we like to be connected.
  5. Listen – people want to know someone is listening.

Stories are data with souls

The growth of online patient communities exemplifies that patients need stories of hope and encouragement.

Highlighted in this article are steps to making a commanding presentation.

Listening is equally important

Ed Saxon’s description on listening resonated with me. I first began to appreciate the power of listening as a practicing dentist when patients would voluntarily tell me their life stories. It turns out that finding time to take care of your teeth is a habit that needs constant reinforcement. Checking in with your dentist every six months is an effective behavior change technique.

Later, while going on hundreds of non-deal road shows in investor relations, I learned to watch the body language and tone of voice as an indication of whether the investor would buy or sell the company’s stock.

I brought this appreciation for listening when I created the voices of autoimmune disease to emotionally move my Stanford Medicine X audience.

A broken delicate balance of stories and listening

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While listening is key, as Danielle Ofri, MD explains how doctors and patients may have different priorities necessitating a delicate balance.

At the same time, Abigail Zuger, MD notes that some of our new technologies, including EMR’s, may be distracting.

This tug of war, without time or emotional energy for stories and listening, is creating a slew of unhappy doctors who are playing both offense and defense in the exam room.

Is there a way to encourage the use of stories? How can we encourage more stories and more listening by both  patients and doctors, especially in complex chronic diseases?

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