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Healthcare Storytelling Part 2: Improve Your Patient Stories With the Hero’s Journey

In Part 1 of this series, my colleague Marlana Voerster wrote about the need for healthcare organizations to incorporate principles of good storytelling to make your brand a hero in users’ eyes. In this article, we’ll be talking about storytelling and heroism from another angle: the hero’s journey, also known as the monomyth. It’s a well-known and -loved narrative arc that writers have used for thousands of years in everything from the classic epics, such as “The Odyssey,” to classic and modern films.

Most content for healthcare organizations is conversion-focused (e.g., service-line content), informative (e.g., blog articles) or some blending thereof (e.g., email campaigns). As healthcare writers, we don’t often get a chance to flex the writing muscles used in hero’s journey tales. But there is one notable exception: the patient story.

The patient story is nearly unique among testimonial content, and it’s wholly unique to healthcare. In a relatively short space, it can cover some big themes. Home and family. Security and comfort. Fear of the unknown. Our relationships with our mortality. These are themes we all can relate to. Simple testimonials can share positive experiences a customer had with a product or service. But only the patient story can take the consumer willingly through an entire narrative arc. And, nearly without fail, the narrative arc your patient stories should follow is the hero’s journey.

Let’s go through the standard beats of the hero’s journey — some stories have more, but for our purposes, we’ll stick to five main beats. We’ll explore the storytelling milestones they include. We’ll use examples from the classic film “Back to the Future” (fair warning: I’m not providing spoiler warnings for a nearly 40-year-old movie). And we’ll compare them to what you should make sure to include in your patient stories to ensure high engagement and increase their chances of conversion.

Beat 1: Show the hero’s normal life

At the beginning of the story, we see the hero’s regular existence. We find out what they’re interested in and what motivates them. In “Back to the Future,” we relate to Marty McFly as a regular high school kid. He aspires to be a rock star. He has a nice girlfriend. And he copes with a bullied father in a dead-end job and a somewhat disappointing family life.

This is a crucial area of patient stories that we often see our clients neglect. Take a moment to show us the patient’s normal life. What’s their family like? Do they have an interesting career or hobby? Do they volunteer in the community?

This part of the story helps us care about the patient as a person. It’s the foundation for the rest of the journey we’re about to take with them. Without it, the story is likely to fall a bit flat, because we aren’t as invested in the person.

Beat 2: Show what happens that changes the stakes

A DeLorean DMC-12 car.

A DeLorean DMC-12. Image by Dave Tavres from Pixabay.

This beat kicks off the plot in fictional tales — it sets the hero on their journey. In “Back to the Future,” what starts out as a fun meet-up between Marty and his friend Emmitt “Doc” Brown to record one of the Doc’s crazy science experiments turns into a catastrophe. The Doc ends up shot, and Marty ends up thrown 30 years back in time because of the Doc’s actually functioning time machine (the iconic DeLorean everyone remembers from the movie).

In your patient story, this is the area where the patient receives their diagnosis or injury. If it’s a chronic condition, we explain what that condition is and how it affects the patient. How does the patient’s condition affect their life? What changes did they notice? What could they no longer do?

Having introduced the “normal” state in the beginning, this beat lets us show the depth of what the patient is facing. This helps the audience identify with them. Can they see themselves in the patient’s place? How are they reacting to what’s presumably a similar situation for them?

Beat 3: Show how the hero struggles and who helps the hero move forward

In a healthcare journey map, this would be the point where things start trending downward for our hero. The plot’s events are moving against the hero, and they’re having a hard time. In “Back to the Future,” Marty immediately runs into trouble in the past. He accidentally interferes in his parents’ destined meeting and falling in love. This will lead to him not existing without help. The only person he can turn to is the past version of the Doc, who has the theoretical knowledge to help him guide his parents back together while helping Marty return to his time.

This beat is the kicker for your healthcare organization. Your provider is serving in the role of the mentor, the wise adviser, the indispensable supporting character without whom the hero wouldn’t be able to complete their journey. Your physician can be Gandalf to the patient’s Frodo, Morpheus to the patient’s Neo or Doc to the patient’s Marty. You can showcase the knowledge and skills your team used to help the patient emerge from the terrible circumstances in which they found themselves.

This beat is the quiet reason patient stories are so effective: On the surface, they’re not overtly self-promotional. They celebrate a powerful tale of a hero (the patient) overcoming challenges. It wouldn’t be possible without the wisdom and guidance of the mentor (your provider and/or the care team). But the story’s not about them. However, when it’s time for another patient to face similar circumstances, having a supporting team that has played a role in the same kind of story before and found a happy outcome is a powerful motivator indeed.

Beat 4: Show the hero’s turning point

The turning point, or the climax, is when things finally turn around for the hero. The plot is working in their favor. Their status has changed. (On our journey map, we’d be following the trend line upward now.) In “Back to the Future,” the turning point comes when Marty’s parents end up together — not quite the way it happened the first time but close enough for rock and roll — and Marty himself travels back to his time, having saved the Doc from his future fate in the process.

In your patient story, the turning point comes when the patient finds relief from the circumstances. Their symptoms begin to improve, their condition is cured/resolved (or goes into remission), and things are generally improving. Of course, the helpful provider and care team are there to see the patient through and provide continued support, but we’ve come through the hardest part alongside the patient.

In both cases, this is the payoff. This is why the user has invested time in consuming the story. People may say they’re suckers for happy endings, but what they really mean is that they’re suckers for positive resolutions to turning points. (The former is easier to say, though.)

Beat 5: The happy ending/the new normal

In this beat, we’re tying off loose ends. In “Back to the Future,” we see Marty discovering the effects his time-traveling has had on his present. His once-disappointing family is much improved. His once-oppressed father is now a confident, successful writer, and the bully is now a menial laborer for the family (a victory for karma). And Marty’s nice girlfriend is generally unchanged. Clearly, everything’s better now — until the DeLorean comes hurtling into the driveway, but that’s a problem for the sequel.

In the patient story, we need to take a moment to show the patient’s return to normal (or the new normal, as the case may be). Can they return to the career, hobbies and activities they loved before? Can they resume their normal relationships with family members and friends? Are they grateful for the care they received? (We assume that’s the case, or else they wouldn’t participate in the profile.)

This is the endgame (not the Avengers movie — different heroes’ journey there) for your user. They’re afraid or concerned, and they’re looking for reassurance. Their main question: Can your healthcare organization get them to this point? If they see enough of themselves in your profiled patient, there’s a good chance the user can answer that question with “Yes.” You want to paint a vision of the future for your consumer here. They need to see themselves in the happy ending of the hero’s story.

If you’ve done your job well, you’ve presented a patient story that helps the user identify with the patient, empathize and sympathize with their situation, and visualize themselves at the positive resolution of the situation. From there, it’s a matter of reassuring the user that your team is here to help them if they need this kind of care, surfacing an appropriate call to action (CTA) and incorporating the new patient story into your service-line content.

Patient stories are the heroic tales of your service-line content

Too often, we see healthcare organizations neglect their patient stories because of a lack of engagement, funding or internal political will to invest in them. But, if crafted properly with the hero’s journey in mind, patient stories can increase conversions and improve the impressions of your providers’ expertise more than almost any kind of service-line content.

We help healthcare organizations conceptualize and create powerful patient stories that showcase the talents of their providers and set themselves up for success. Contact us to learn more about our comprehensive healthcare content solutions.

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Michael Adkins, Senior Content Strategist, Digital Health Strategy

As part of Perficient's Digital Health Strategy team, Michael partners with healthcare organizations to create informative, conversion-centered content for a variety of applications, including websites and blogs. Michael writes content that highlights clients’ service-line offerings, expertise in unique treatments, differentiators in competitive markets and additional factors that are important to patients.

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