Robert McKee says that stories are the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. When Michael Smull visited Central Lancashire, he too talked about the power of '5 minute stories' as an educational tool, encouraging us to reveal how important the issues we are talking about are by relating them to the real experiences of real people.
In my work promoting person centred thinking and planning, I've found that to be a fundamental truth about how to get your message across. What really helps people understand an issue, is when it's attached to a human being, with a personality and a back story.
That's why Mencap's campaign 'Death By Indifference'
was so strong. The harrowing tales of 8 people who encountered a wall of indifference when they had to use British hospitals, indifference that resulted in their tragic and unneccessary deaths. The statistics had always been there for everyone to see, but it took personal stories to bring what was known by people with learning disabilities and their carers to the attention of the wider community.
I used the 'Death by Indifference' stories in a recent lecture I gave to some social work students at UCLAN last week. They were genuinely shocked that this could even happen in our NHS. They each looked at an individual case study, thinking about what went wrong, and why, then thinking about what actions might have prevented the tragedies. Relating the issues in this way meant we were able to have a wide ranging discussion about the work of learning disability teams, hospital champions, hospital passports, health action plans and communication charts and guides.
I felt however that it would be unbalanced simply to regale the students simply with negative and perhaps discouraging stories without offering them some alternative. I know academia is all about analysis and criticism, but it should also be a place where creativity and constructiveness are nurtured. So I searched out this story about Maureen on Helen Sanderson Associates website,
a simple story about how with a little bit of persistence and determination, a person's supporter was able to persuade a nursing team on a hospital ward to use a communication chart to listen much better to Maureen and her needs, and to explain the care they were giving her better. This simple breakthrough in communication enabled Maureen to trust them and finally start to benefit from the care they were giving, possibly even saving her life.
I could almost sense the sigh of relief as the students read her case study.
In their feedback, the students told me that they felt much more motivated by their encounter with these stories to continue with their course, that it was encouraging that sometimes quite small and simple changes can make an enormous difference in the outcomes that people experience.
Given yesterday's report from the Care Quality Commission
about the way acute hospital care is failing so many elderly patients, perhaps there is a lot that can be learned by many people in health and social care from stories like Maureens and applied in our hospitals. Sometimes I feel with the NHS that the politicians are focussing on the wrong issues. The really big task in our NHS is to find ways to change entrenched attitudes to disempowered people, like people with learning disabilities and the elderly, helping everyone involved remember that these people are the experts on their own lives, and enabling these people and their family carers to have a direct say and involvement in how their care will work.
So that's my story about the power of stories.