August 23, 2018

The Anatomy of a Patient Story

Storytelling is a key component of just about any creative execution. In health care, it’s even more crucial given the human-to-human affair.

We’ve talked about the process of finding great stories before (such as using journalistic methods). Another approach is to break down what great patient stories are and are not MADE of. This is important because it’s easy to say “Hey! I see nothing but patient stories in health care.”

True. But, just because it IS a story doesn’t mean it is a COMPELLING story. It’s not that patient stories are necessarily bad…it’s that so many sound the same. In addition to how we collect them, understanding the anatomy of a compelling patient story should help us all get stories that will drive volume and achieve our objectives.

Here are some crucial anatomical considerations to look for as you evaluate the value of a patient story:


If a story had a heart or a brain (crucial systems for functioning), it would be conflict. When you get a submission for a patient story, ask how strong the element of conflict really is. Consider the differences between these two fictional but common submissions that CMOs get for patient stories:

My patient Jane Doe just got discharged. She couldn’t stop raving about the care she got from the nurses and her surgery went seamlessly. She should be back to playing tennis in a few months. She’s thrilled.

How nice for Jane and our fictional health system. This is exactly what we love to hear. But what if we had the same story and asked a few more questions that revealed the magical storytelling elixir of conflict?

My patient Jane Doe’s mother died of complications from knee surgery so she was understandably anxious about her own knee replacement. But tennis is the center of her social life and she feels without the surgery, she’d have to hang up her racket. So we talked her through her fears, and she was just discharged. She couldn’t stop raving about the care she got from the nurses and her surgery went seamlessly. She should be back to playing tennis in a few months. She’s thrilled.

Man versus fear is a classic point of conflict. Notice what its addition did for the story? It catalyzed two other ingredients: empathy and memorability.

Even if your mother didn’t die, surgery always has an element of fear. This is universal for all patients. When we stop looking at storytelling clinically and instead from a humanity perspective, we produce empathy that makes that next potential patient think, “If Jane could overcome that fear, maybe I can too.”

Memorability increases the chances they’ll share the story online or in-person. And it pre-sells your brand even if they don’t need surgery now. If a tennis player gets injured a year after your spot airs but she remembers Jane, you’re already ahead of that health system down the street.


The biggest mistakes I see people make (admittedly from my cheap seats in the peanut gallery of consulting) in patient storytelling often have to do with the standards we set in vetting them. This tends to be a double-edged sword.

Your standards are too high. You’re looking for that amazing clinical tale of the cardiac surgeon who was called in by the neuro surgeon to stop a patient’s heart momentarily so he could fix the brain. While this has actually happened, chances are it didn’t recently at your system. Another pitfall here is the stories built around amazing feats of science are often too complicated to quickly translate in a marketing piece.

Your standards are too low. The story is straight-up boring. Look back to our example with Jane the Tennis Player above. Find elements of a story that are just uncommon enough to be unique but no so far out of space that it is difficult to create empathy.


Because we often choose complicated service line stories for their halo effect, the stories get far too complicated in plot and setting. An example is someone who gets diagnosed at your system but gets one part of treatment elsewhere. Or when they have a truly multi-disciplinary treatment, and we try to push all of the doctors into the story so someone on the team doesn’t get their feelings hurt.

If your story of choice has a far too complicated plot or setting, make the edits you need or look for a different story with a simpler plotline.


Sometimes good healthcare storytelling is about going back to high school and thinking about how you were taught to read William Shakespeare. Look for three acts where in the first you establish the characters, give them a problem in the second and solve that problem in the third.

Few people in this world get paid to tell stories like we do. Give this sacred art the attention it deserves. Understand and practice creating the anatomy of a compelling patient story, and that payoff will last your entire career.