The Power of Storytelling in Population Health Management (PHM)

At the recent Best Practice Show[1] in London I shared a platform with the always excellent Dr Steve Laitner[2] and Dr Helen Davies[3] to talk Population Health Management (PHM).

It gave me the opportunity to speak on a matter I am passionate about when talking Population Health Management – the power of storytelling.

Whilst it is true that all Population Health Management enterprises are data driven, there is a real danger that we become too obsessed with the data. We obsess when we can’t get it and we fret when we do. Indeed, when it comes to data we are in a permanent state of angst. We lose sight of the fact that the data is only ever a guide. It will not and cannot provide us with all of the answers to the myriad of questions we have.

Too often we stress and agonise over the minutia of detail. We desire a world where the insight we crave takes a sentient form, leaping from the dashboard to lead us to a Population Health Management nirvana.

If only.

The road to hell is paved with dashboards. Too often – to misquote Churchill – they take the form of   “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Face it. Health data is messy and complex. It is therefore the duty of all those that work with it to provide clarity and insight.

That insight exists but it needs coaxing and teasing. Once surfaced it needs to be presented as part of a rich narrative that generates a strong and lasting personal response.

This is why the very best data analysts and the most precious data scientists are great storytellers. They elicit and convey meaning from the data they work with. That data is often hard, sterile, and soulless. With stories we create emotion and empathy.

Great stories enable us to connect with our audience. They provide a means whereby we can generate a deep and personal reaction from those with whom we seek to engage. In Population Health Management audience engagement is everything and it is through the power of our stories that we have the means by which to persuade, influence and ultimately generate action.

In my talk, I sought to illustrate my point by quoting the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”.

A single sentence. One number.

From this sentence I need to know more about that number. Its meaning. The story behind it. I’m hooked. I’m on a journey to understanding.

This I believe is the challenge facing all those working with data as part of their Population Health Management endeavours.

How to captivate our audience? How to inspire? How to connect? How to generate an emotion that strikes at a personal level and that inspires our audience to rise-up and act.

It is no easy skill, but part of the answer lies in mindset.

If you truly want to persuade people to change the world, then think and act like a storyteller.

Think Orwell.

N C Slone

16th March 2023

My thanks to Martha L Sylvia and Ines Maria Vigil who served as inspiration for this story.

Martha Sylvia & Ines Maria Vigil – Population Health Analytics. Copyright©2022 by Jones & Bartlett Learning LLC