Why Storytelling Matters in Healthcare

By Jenn Maer, Creative Director @ Omada Health

There’s nothing more personal than healthcare.

We’re talking about our bodies, after all: our ability to function, breathe, move, work…live.

Yet there’s nothing more impersonal and opaque than most healthcare communications.

So what’s up with the disconnect?

Healthcare is a mashup of science and business, but we can’t forget that our experience of it is emotional. All that fear, hope, loss, triumph, and uncertainty. It’s messy, human stuff.

Friends in the industry, it’s time to collectively up our communication game. Because good storytelling saves lives.

Now, lest you think I’m a just some crazy copywriter with a messiah complex, allow me to give a concrete example.

Prediabetes is a condition which is reversible. But left unchecked, it can lead to type 2 diabetes, which comes with all kinds of nasty complications — not the least of which is death.

I can hand you a brochure that warns you of the dangers of prediabetes and firmly urges you to assess your risk. But if you’re like most people, you’ll probably glance at it, glaze over for a moment, then toss it in a pile of stuff that “happens to other people.”

Or, I could tell you a story.

Maybe it’s a story about a real person. Someone who’s experienced the ups and downs of life, just like you have. While I’ve got your attention, you’re forming an emotional connection with the content that runs deeper than any barrage of facts ever could. Once I’ve engaged your heart (not just your mind), you’re a lot more likely to take action — action that could literally save your life.

Stories motivate people in ways that statistics never will. There are lots of scientists out there who can tell you why. For example, MRI machines have shown how descriptive language, like metaphor, triggers our sensory cortex and lights up neurological regions that incite action and movement. And dopamine gets released during emotionally charged experiences, which helps people remember those experiences with greater accuracy. (I can pretty much guarantee that your average “Ask your doctor if Gladafix is right for you” ad isn’t dumping a rush of memory-making neurotransmitters into your brain. In fact, the ad’s list of terrifying side effects read at breakneck speed will probably do more to numb your skull than delight it.)

Great stories are sharable, too. If a story moves me or engages me, I’ll forward it to a friend. I’ll talk about it at a party. I’ll share it on my timeline. And when it comes to public health, you can’t ask for better than that. My tacit endorsement, as a living, breathing human being you might know personally is worth more than gold. Because last I checked, the healthcare industry ranked pretty low on the list of entities that engender public trust.

But great storytelling isn’t just for patients. It matters in the B2B world, too, for all the same reasons.

I’m about to drop a bomb here, so get ready…

Business decision makers are people. (BOOM!) They don’t turn off their emotions when they pick up their laptops in the morning and head into the office. They’re the very same people who watch Game of Thrones on Sunday and well up at the end of Marley and Me.

Of course, they’ve got critical minds that need to see numbers, and bosses who want to understand the business impact of every decision. But that’s not how real decisions get made.

Important decisions get made when something “Just feels right.”

While the brain rationalizes, the heart pulls the trigger. And stories — moving, poignant, interesting stories — shoot straight to the heart.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re an HR professional. As a representative of Omada Health, I can show you a cost/benefit analysis on implementing our chronic disease prevention program. I can outline the ROI you’ll get from pulling your at-risk population back from the brink of disease (where they’d cost you a lot of money). This stuff is vitally important, of course. But will these arguments convince you to take the leap and provide a new benefit to your employees? At this point, you’ve thought about it. But what have you felt about it?

Imagine, instead, a presentation that shared both the stats AND the stories. Let me show you a person whose life has changed for the better. Not a composite persona like “At-Risk Alice.” I’m talking about a real person. An individual with a name and a family and a brighter outlook on the future, thanks to the changes she’s made with Omada. Let me share the intangible benefits of working with us, the things that defy quantification because you can’t stick “living long enough to see my granddaughter graduate” on a spreadsheet.

If all of this sounds fluffy to you, let me tell you a story. It’s a story about one of our biggest clients, a national retail giant, standing at the edge of a big decision. They’d worked with Omada successfully before, but needed to convince their senior leadership to make a commitment and expand the program nationally. Our client partner had the numbers, and she had the stats. But she’d also heard people’s personal stories in the break rooms and on the floor — and that’s the stuff you just can’t quantify. So do you know what she led with at the board meeting? A video like this that told the stories of real employees whose lives were changed for the better with Omada.

Leadership said yes. I imagine a few of them even choked up. And in the end, thousands more of their people gained access to a program that could potentially improve or even save their lives.

And that, my friends, is why storytelling matters in healthcare.