Moving Away From Data Points and Back to the Patient Story


Kathryn Freeman, MD

This past spring, I consciously moved away from learning clinical skills and spent time at two conferences: the National Medical Legal Partnership Conference, and the Family Medicine Advocacy Summit. There, instead of learning about medicine, I learned about stories.

When I reflect on what I learned in medical school, it was all about taking a patient story and converting it into a formal presentation. We spend years training our residents to boil down a patient’s history into discrete facts in a defined structure, using medical terminology to convey a message that only other physicians can understand. But that only allows us to communicate with each other, not with the world around us, or with the people, partners, groups, and leaders who have the potential to make a larger impact our patients’ health.

At both of these conferences, I heard about the importance of authentically sharing patient stories. How data by itself doesn’t reach people. How hearing facts and figures (or alternative facts and figures), won’t change people’s minds or engage them in conversation. How these stories, real stories, full of emotion and consequences, have the power to influence those who hold the power; those who make big decisions affecting the coverage, services, funding, and the overall health care available to our patients.

How then, do we teach residents to tell stories? How do we teach them to take out the technical details, the medical jargon, and convey the human nature and the inner battle patients face in their health care decisions? How do we teach them to identify the values and interests of their intended audience to build connections and relationship? How do we make it non-medical, and instead about real people? Especially when we began training them to deconstruct stories from the first weeks of medical school.

And, if I am honest, are we as physicians really the ones to share these stories in the first place? Should we instead be training our patients to be storytellers, so they can own and share their story in a way that is authentic to their own experience? Are we then only acting as a proxy, hijacking the stories of others for our own benefit?

Despite the inner struggles, following the Family Medicine Advocacy Summit and the MLP National Conference, I have found myself repeatedly and thoughtfully reaching for the right story. Experienced physician advocates, community-engaged practitioners, lobbyists, and health minded civil aid lawyers demonstrated where the story fits into the work of policy change. I can see where the personal nature of a story can stand out among the objective data, and I strive to capture the story in a way that is authentic to the patient and provider experience.

I needed that story of a young man’s battle with his landlord to gain support for our new medical legal partnership. I found the story of a refugee family’s struggle to schedule their child’s surgery was the right message for a phone call with the insurance company. And I hope that my patients’ positive and patient-centered delivery experiences will be enough to reinvigorate and redefine our program’s OB experience.

While I don’t always feel confident sharing these stories, these conferences have helped me understand their importance and have given me the courage to use them, and my privilege as a physician, to bring about positive change.

I hope I can help residents learn to cherish their patients’ stories and share them to advocate a greater audience. Perhaps I can help residents convey the realness they are privy to each day in the exam room. Perhaps I can help residents use their privilege to stand up for the needs of patients. And perhaps, one day, we will train residents to coach patients to tell their own stories, and we can use our privilege to get them through the front door to create meaningful, lasting change.

3 responses to “Moving Away From Data Points and Back to the Patient Story

  1. Antoinette Moore

    I love this. I’m currently creating web based curriculum that surrounds patient oral histories to improve physician trainee empathy. I believe strongly that focusing on the story- not the list of complaints- is key to best advocate for our patients… and it’s also key for US to get the most out of our careers in terms of satisfaction. Keep it up!

  2. I love this too! Stories move people like nothing else does, and while numbers have their own power, most people don’t connect with numbers the way they do with people. With all the obvious caveats, I think that telling patient’s stories is critical for all the things we need the rest of the world to understand about the practice of medicine.

  3. Pingback: STFM’s Top 10 Ways to Win (Policy) Friends and Influence (Government) People | STFM Blog

Leave a Reply — Comments may be moderated. If you don't see your comment, please be patient.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s