“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the
error of defining it.” ~Hannah Arendt
I come from a rich tradition of storytelling, having grown up in Ireland, surrounded by a family of gifted storytellers (most notably my father). He wove stories and literature through our daily lives to enrich our thinking, enhance our creativity, contextualize lessons, and explain the complexities of life. I am forever grateful for his gift of storytelling as I reflect on how it has grown into a key element of my life and my career.
I was given a unique opportunity to bring storytelling, which was so important in my personal life, into my career while I was at CIHI. It was my job to highlight the data we collected and produced from our clinical registries. I was amazed at the wealth of data “hidden” in the registries and wanted the world, especially the world of healthcare, to know about this tremendous source of information. Stories were the secret sauce that would bring it to life.
In my early days there, thinking through the data going into a report from our trauma registry, a pattern emerged about a disproportionate number of young people who were injured on the job. It immediately brought to mind my experience with a young patient, and his family, who had a huge impact on my life when I was a researcher in a burn unit where he was admitted. His name was Sean Kells. With the permission and participation of his family we honoured Sean and his family through the telling of his story to highlight what the data revealed, and to encourage a dialogue about possible solutions.
Sean had been severely burned in a workplace incident on the third day of his new part time job working with volatile chemicals. I met him as he was brought into the burn unit that November day; a previously carefree teenager who I would learn more about from his father over the coming days, months, and years. For some reason, all these years later, I am still struck by the fact that he was wearing one of those coloured beaded necklaces; in my mind it was a symbol of carefree youth. He died at the tender age of 19. His story touched all who heard it, brought the human touch to statistics, and gave the data a new voice, a new way of influencing policy.
A journalist at the time gave me advice that would forever influence my career. As I described the data in the trauma report, I had told Sean’s story on his show to illustrate the data. The journalist asked me to stay on the line afterwards. What he had to share with me after our interview was simple yet profound. “The story you told changed your report from a recitation of factoids into a call to action that will change policy…never be afraid to tell stories” He was right – Sean’s story raised awareness and did change policy. The province went on to change the high school curriculum to mandate that all students receive teaching about their rights for training in all workplaces, regardless of their employment status as temporary or part time. From that time onwards, storytelling has been an unapologetic approach I take to explaining, humanizing and democratizing healthcare and healthcare data. The power of our shared story was so strong that it not only changed policy but nurtured a cherished friendship with Sean’s father Paul that remains to this day.
Canadians benefit by seeing the impacts of health services and policy research and how this important work matters to them and their families. As a health services and policy researcher, your aim is to leverage the insights gleaned from your research in a way that has impact and can result in solutions that can be implemented in a concrete way. And achieving this kind of impact can boil down to how you communicate your data insights. One of the communication approaches I hope that you will consider and use when you can is great storytelling.
When we tell stories, we not only relay information, but we connect with people and as I’ve learned, connection and relationship are at the heart of excellent healthcare.