Med Students Transforming Primary Care Through Storytelling

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At Primary Care Progress, storytelling – part of our Relational Leadership™ model – is at at the heart of what we do. It can bridge divides and highlight shared values between health care professionals and patients, among care team members, and between different disciplines. Storytelling inspires action, even in the face of overwhelming challenges, which is what we need to transform primary care. Today on the blog, a co-leader of our Hofstra team explains how she passed storytelling skills on to her teammates.

It was my first patient of the day, and she greeted me with, “I hate coming here.”

“Go on,” I coaxed.

“Every time I come here, I see a different person, I haven’t gotten any of the referrals I’ve asked for, and I feel totally dismissed.”

I told the story of this patient at PCP Hofstra’s recent storytelling event.

At Hofstra, we devote curriculum time to reflection. It’s a process that’s literally built into our schedule. The faculty value it, and the students all get something out of the experience. However, we don’t get a lot of structured time to reflect on our initial clinic experiences (ICE). We start these experiences by riding ambulances during our EMT training. Then we have weekly office visits with preceptors in general internal or family medicine, pediatrics, OBGYN, surgery, and psychiatry. For most of us, ICE is our first experience with primary care, and based on the stories I’ve heard around school, these experiences can be very mixed.

Knowing this, my PCP team co-leader Pratiksha Yalakkishettar and I wanted to create a structured, safe space for people to share specific stories from their ICE experiences. Our goal was to help students crystalize a single experience, and in so doing, come to a concrete conclusion about what they learned or felt. We called the event “Breaking the ICE: Owning Your ICE Experience Through Storytelling.”

We used the storytelling method that Pratishka and I learned last summer at PCP’s Gregg Stracks Leadership Summit. The technique compresses a challenge, choice, and outcome into a three-minute story. At the summit, we were asked to tell a story that conveyed our passion for medicine and what brought us to the summit. The stories we heard and shared surprised us. They were compassionate, personal, and created a tighter bond between teller and listener. That’s why we chose to use the same method at our event.

We started the event by asking why we tell stories. We heard entertain, connect, reflect, give feedback, process, and be human. I told an example story – the one about my patient who hated coming to the clinic – and then we broke up into groups of three. Someone would tell their three-minute story, receive feedback, and then workshop a part of that story [watch Victoria tell her story below].

 

A student in my group of three asked to go last, and when we came to her, she insisted that she had no story to tell. We coaxed her into talking about something, anything, that had happened at ICE. She ended up telling a story about an experience where she didn’t speak up during a patient encounter, and how his outcome could have been improved if she had. A few months later, she was brave enough to speak up for a different patient, in the hopes of avoiding a similar outcome. As she reflected on this, she realized that she hadn’t connected those two experiences before. The weight of that first decision shaped her and helped her become a more confident student doctor. She expressed her gratitude to us for pushing her to reflect, and for holding an event for storytelling about ICE.

Coming back together as a large group, a student shared her story about losing faith in primary care when she saw how it can turn into a referral hub. Over the course of the story, she came full circle to regain hope through a challenging patient experience with a positive outcome. At the end of the evening, we went back through the list of reasons to tell stories and found that her story covered all of them: entertain, connect, reflect, give feedback, process, and be human.

Holding this event was a proud moment for me as a student. I encourage other PCP teams to explore the possibility of holding similar events. It allowed me to pass on to my friends and colleagues a tangible skill of empowerment and insight, and I believe we all surprised ourselves with our conclusions.

Learn more about storytelling for social change.

Victoria Fort

Victoria Fort earned her MPH from Emory University. She spent four years working with CDC, WHO, and several African Ministries of Health to build integrated disease surveillance capacity in the WHO AFRO Region. She is now a member of Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine Class of 2019.

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