A creative program at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin called My Life, My Story caught my attention recently. This unique initiative invites Veterans to share their life stories with an interviewer who takes notes. Subsequently, the interviewer writes up the Veteran’s story in a one-page first-person account and reviews it with the patient, who can add more details or correct mistakes. The thousand-word biographies are then attached to the patients’ medical records for clinicians to read.
The aim is to help medical providers learn more about their patients in a simple and useful way. The life stories allow clinicians and caregivers to not only find out how their patients are doing, but also who their patients are. The use of storytelling may improve patients’ relationships with their providers. It can be therapeutic for the patients – enabling them to feel heard—and build empathy in the clinicians. In fact, a survey at the Madison VA indicated that 85% of clinicians found reading the stories to be a valuable use of their time, and it helped improve patient care.
Reading the brief biographies conveys information beyond health issues such as patients’ interests, hobbies, and people in their lives who they trust and can help with decision-making. Research has suggested that patients have better health outcomes when their providers know more about them. Although the program does not target patients who are receiving mental health care per se, for medical and mental health professionals, reading about the positive and negative experiences that have shaped a patient’s life may shed light on that individual’s emotional and physical well-being.
In 2012, a medical resident at the Madison VA, Dr. Elliott Lee, hatched the idea for My Life, My Story in an effort to help doctors like himself get to know their patients better. Since medical residents only spend about a year at the VA, patients often end up seeing new doctors each year. Dr. Lee thought it would be helpful if providers could read about their patients’ lives while reviewing their medical records. They could learn about their patients’ backgrounds and begin to develop a relationship in advance of meeting them. When the program was first evolving, patients were asked to write about themselves, but many didn’t like the idea. Then the hospital tried using surveys. What ended up working best was hiring a writer to do the interviews and pen the biographies. These days, volunteer writers ask Veterans in the hospital if they want to participate in the program and talk about their lives.
My Life, My Story is catching on. Over 2000 patients have been interviewed at the Wisconsin VA and nearly forty other VA medical centers across the country are considering incorporating the storytelling method. Civilian hospitals may also bring the program to their sites. Ultimately, this nonjudgmental, relationship-building approach may reduce stigma and open lines of communication between patients and providers.
Paula Domenici, Ph.D., is Director of Training and Education with the Center for Deployment Psychology at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.
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