Using storytelling to promote health

Personal storytelling can be an effective tool in health promotion.

As a Michigan State University Extension educator, I often think that if I present someone with facts about a health issue, they will use those facts to make an informed decision about what is best for their health. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For example, a doctor can list of all the statistics about the dangers of smoking to a patient, but the patient may still continue to smoke. Convincing someone to make a health change is not an easy task. The patient needs to be persuaded to make the decision, and presenting the facts alone is not enough in most situations. Studies have shown that storytelling can be an effective tool in health education.

This idea was tested in a randomized controlled trial. In the study, a group of women were shown a “traditional” educational video about cervical cancer and Pap tests that included facts and graphs. Another group of women was shown a video using a narrative format. In this video, a young girl is preparing for her 15th birthday and her older sister informs her that she has just been diagnosed with HPV. Her sister tells her about cervical cancer and the importance of Pap tests. Both videos were of the same length and contained the same facts about cervical cancer. At a six month follow up, the group of women shown the narrative video were more likely to have signed up for a Pap test than the group shown the traditional video.

Similarly, another study looked at the effect of an organ donation message on viewers of popular television shows. In the study, surveys were conducted after episodes with organ donation storylines were aired on the TV shows “CSI:NY,” “Numb3rs,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “House.” It was concluded that when myths about organ donation were presented in the storylines, viewers were more likely to perceive the myth as fact and vice versa.

How can narratives be incorporated into health education? It may take some creativity. The key lies in developing relatable characters and an engaging storyline. In the cervical cancer study, women were more likely to sign up for a Pap test if they were of the same ethnicity as the women in the video. It helped them relate to the character. When people are transported and engaged in the story, they are less likely to argue with the main points being presented. Of course, not every educational situation can easily incorporate an engaging storyline. Case studies, testimonials and personal experience narratives can also be effective ways to incorporate narratives as educational tools.

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