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Applying Storytelling to Health and Healthcare

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By: Marion Leary, MPH, MSN, RN

Storytelling is a critical part of healthcare, as well as innovation and design. Stories can be used to communicate a problem, provide context, and present a solution. Storytelling is a science into itself and includes an arc of emotions, setting the stage of where the story takes place, who it affects, and how.

The concept of a “narrative arc” is used by storytellers as a way to tell a captivating story. All stories should have a beginning, middle, and end — and within there is a pattern of exposition, rising action, crisis, the climax (and resolution) and finally the falling action (Health Design Thinking/Jack Hart, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative NonFiction).

Per First Person Arts, a storytelling organization, the beginning of a story includes the “ordinary world” —  the who/what/when/where/why of the story. The middle includes the “inciting incident”, this is where the crisis occurs, the journey begins, and where one meets their allies or foes; it is during this middle section where you gain what you need to resolve the incident. The end is the “journey back”, using what you’ve learned and describing how has it changed you or the situation, included in there is your resolution.

Storytelling can be integrated into health and healthcare in many ways and used for many reasons, at Penn Nursing we use the following methods of storytelling to amplify the work nurses and other health and healthcare providers are doing, to highlight pressing health and healthcare issues, to educate patients, families, communities, & policymakers, and to advocate for the health of all of us.

Innovation Accelerator Pitch Event

A major component of human-centered design and design thinking is being able to pitch a problem and solution to investors and others interested in your innovation. A pitch is very different than an academic presentation. A pitch has a different layout, cadence, and style. The Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator, which is a 10-month program that helps bring innovation ideas to fruition through funding, mentorship, and education begins with a 3-step application process, the final of which is a pitch event. At the pitch, teams must present their work to a panel of external judges who are experts in entrepreneurship and innovation. Teams have 6 minutes to pitch their problem and solution. It is during this time where storytelling plays a vital role; teams must craft their pitch in a way that connects with the judges, pulls at their heartstrings, and sets the foundation for the success of their solution. I tell the teams to make sure to begin with a compelling story, follow that through the pitch, and by the end, bring it full circle (i.e the narrative arch). The innovation accelerator application process is considered a learning endeavor for the applicants, so we provide the teams with our standard pitch template to use, storytelling resources, and a 30-minute practice pitch session. To watch the Penn Nursing Innovation Pitches, check out our website.

Nursing Story Slam

The Penn Nursing Story Slam brings together nurses from across the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine Health System to share their true-life stories based on a theme. In the past the themes centered on Innovation, Courage, Stepping up, and this year is Creativity. Nurses who are interested in participating submit a 100 word summary of their proposed story based on the topic, which is then reviewed by our selection committee. Those who are selected to participate must attend a 4-hour mastery storytelling workshop with First Person Arts. A story slam is a performance, therefore the workshop teaches the participants not only how to craft a compelling story but also how to perform it. To learn more about what a story slam is and how to put on one, read more here; to watch previous Penn Nursing Story Slam videos, check out our website. The next Penn Nursing Story Slam will take place on February 16, 2022 at 7p ET. The event is free, virtual, and open to the public. Register here.

Amplify Nursing Podcast

The Amplify Nursing podcast highlights nurses who are leading the way in science, innovation, policy, and practice. Each season we focus on relevant health and healthcare issues and talk with nurses doing the work. There are many different types of podcasts; Amplify Nursing is an interview-style podcast where we have an open conversation with our guests. At the end of the podcast, our hosts have a quick summary conversation with each other to highlight the main points of the interview. Storytelling plays a big role in how we craft these conversations, from the beginning of the episode with the introduction and opening quote to our end conversation. To listen to how it all comes together check out our Amplify Nursing episodes on our website.

Improv – Study Hall

I am not funny, or at least that’s what my kid tells me (often), but through the power of combining academics with improv artists, I don’t have to be. Improv is a type of comedic performance that is primarily unscripted and spontaneously created in real-time based on the actions and reactions of the other performers. Crossroads Comedy Theater, a local improv group, is schooling others with their improv show, Study Hall. Study Hall invites researchers, educators, healthcare providers, and others to perform short lectures on “a topic from their field, and then their cast of amazing performers…use what they’ve learned (or didn’t) to improvise hilarious scenes right before your eyes!” I have participated in a few of these improv shows, sharing my resuscitation science and innovation research, and it’s always been an incredible experience. Over the past two years, we have planned a Penn Nursing Study Hall Edition, inviting our doctoral students to present work from their research areas. Unfortunately, the show has had to be rescheduled twice due to covid (we hope to reschedule for 2022). Having nurses and nursing students share their work to different audiences in original ways that take complex topics, like cardiac arrest, and share that information in a non-threatening and even funny way, is essential for better health and science communication. You can watch one of the improv shows I participated in here.

Frontline Digital Theater Series

A brand new storytelling event for Penn Nursing, launching at the end of March and beginning of April, 2022, is the Frontline Digital Theater series. The Frontline Digital Theater series uses the viewpoints of those working in the hospital setting as inspiration for virtual theatrical performances created by playwrights from Elevate Theater Company. The event, supported by the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, will work with healthcare providers (RNs, MDs) as well as other frontline workers (e.g. transport, food services, security) to gather their insights around covid, racial justice, health inequity, and burnout. The frontline workers will attend a 90-minute theater arts workshop and participate in a series of theater games and activities to support the group in sharing their stories around those topics. These insights will then be used to create original plays that will be performed by Elevate Theater Company’s actors on a virtual platform. Following the theater performances, a panel of experts from Penn Nursing and Penn Medicine will discuss the topics highlighted during the plays. For more information on the Frontline Digital Theater Series and to attend the plays, which are free, virtual, and open to the public, check out our website.

At Penn Nursing we firmly believe that nurses — and all health and healthcare providers —  must be competent in the skill of storytelling. Nurses have the best stories, and these are just a few ways we are helping share them.

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