Why is everyone who is attempting to impact patient safety in the healthcare field talking about storytelling? Recently I was asked to speak to the QualityNet conference in Baltimore on the uses of storytelling to engage health professionals with important improvement initiatives. The conference is sponsored by CMS—the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. If you’re over 65 and get Medicare benefits, they’re the folks who cut the check to your doctor or the hospital when you’re sick. As they see it, they’re happy to do so as long as your physician and hospital are engaged with safe practices. But what happens if you go in for a gall bladder operation and acquire a nasty infection while in the hospital that extends your stay an additional week. In years past, we the taxpayers would pick up the tab—just multiply the cost of one incident at an average of $15,000 by hundreds of thousands of such incidents nationwide. It’s a big number! In the past year or so Medicare took a stand—if a patient acquires an infection after entering the hospital, they’re not paying. Now the hospital has a strong incentive to correct practices or conditions in their facilities that contribute to these problems. The challenge is that the data has been around for a long time that hospitals were harming patients, yet no one took steps to correct the problem. Data doesn’t seem to motivate us. What does get us moving are particular stories about particular incidents that occurred on our watch. That gets people’s attention—the first step in the change process.
So, circling back to the QualityNet conference, attending were communication specialists from what are known as Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs) from around the country. Many are nurses and doctors by training. They are tasked with helping hospitals and nursing homes in their states to make the changes that are costing them a small fortune, and CMS is willing to underwrite the costs of the interventions. What these folks have been missing in their arsenal is a powerful tool—the knowledge of how to use stories to engage health professionals with the big change ideas. If one of them can go out and get a hospital on board with better safety practices, and perhaps save a life, then the three hours I spent with them will have been time well spent.