The power of stories

Here’s a wee story:

at a recent consultation event shortly before the implementation of a major revamp of one of our call & recall (screening) systems, a GP pipes up with a question. He works in an area where a sizeable proportion of his patients – for a variety of reasons – don’t tend to interpret the arrival of an official brown envellope in the same way as ‘the rest of us’. So he’s arranged that, alongside sending the letter out, the practice calls the patient being invited for screening, to explain & coax them into coming along.

[The new system dispatches the letter from a central location, gaining a variety of technical and technological efficiencies as a result].

He asks “can his practice be sent their patient letters, so while they forward the notes,  they can contact the patients concerned?”. The presenters of the new arrangements have a wee huddle, and come back with “hmmmn, sorry that can’t be done”. Thinking on his feet, the GP asks “can you let me know that you’re sending the letter out, so that my practice can at least try to coincide our call with the arrival of the note at the patient?” The presenters have another wee huddle, and the answer’s the same…”sorry”.

This seems to have the implication that patients who maybe can’t read, or don’t speak English, or are maybe spooked by official-looking correspondence, end up dis-advantaged.

But the point of this is not to point a finger at those involved, rather to ask a little about what sort of learning can be done from stories like this. How to translate a story into a more general lesson? In the IM&T world, there’s also the burden of the tendency to take things literally. I don’t think that this so much about humans becoming infused with the machines’ literal-mindedness, as about working in a culture where everyone bangs on about ‘delivery’ all the time. When this is wrapped up in procedures and techniques, the last thing that it is sensible to do is to query and seek to re-interpret what’s to be ‘delivered’. Far better (as in ‘career-enhancing’) to take it literally. But this gets in the way of learning from experience – which surely involves re-interpretation, I wonder?

Anyone hearing this sort of story may have a number of reflections, including:

  • there but for the grace of god go the rest of us;

  • we should talk to people more about what new systems are intended to do;

But will general reflections like these help them (or, more likely, others) avoid making a similar (not the same) mistake next time?

Of course, this is scarcely new – one only has to think ‘the oral tradition’ to remember that people have been passing on knowledge via stories for hundreds and thousands of years. But how does it work, in the mind of the listener or nowadays reader and viewer – how does the story transfer into changed behaviour in different contexts? Surely this will have been researched – must have a hunt about.

One thing is sure: we need to provide ways of capturing these stories and sharing them – plenty of tools available for that.


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