Mini-Biographies Help Clinicians Connect With Patients

Bob Hall was recovering from yet another surgery in March 2014 when a volunteer walked into his hospital room. It had been a rocky recovery since his lung transplant three months earlier at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis.

The volunteer wasn’t there to check on his lungs or breathing. Instead, she asked Hall if he wanted to tell his life story. The interview was part of a program called My Life, My Story. Volunteer writers seek out vets at the hospital like Hall, and ask them all about their lives. Then they write up a thousand-word biography, and go over it with the patient, who can add more details or correct any mistakes.

When the story is finished, it’s attached to the patient’s electronic record, where a doctor or nurse working anywhere in the Veterans Affairs medical system can read it. Today more than 2,000 patients at the Madison VA have shared their life stories. Project organizers say it could change the way providers interact with patients.

Clinicians can access a lot of medical data through a patient’s electronic medical record, but there’s nowhere to learn about a patient’s personality or learn about her career, passions or values, said Thor Ringler, who has managed the My Life, My Story project since 2013. The project has developed a set of training materials to allow other VA hospitals to launch storytelling programs. About 40 VA hospitals around the country are currently interested, according to Ringler.