This post was written by Denali Johnson, a previous member of our team.
Colorado HealthStory launched in early 2011 collecting stories from Coloradans about their experiences with health. It is the project that drew me to the Coalition for the Medically Underserved, as I believed in its mission and was already a StoryCorps fan. I knew leaving Colorado College that I was interested in pursuing a medical career, but felt I needed a more robust health care background before I applied to professional schools. Colorado HealthStory and CCMU provided the exact opportunity I was hoping for; engaging with actual patients and providers and learning more about the health care system as a whole.
Colorado HealthStory, which is a project of CCMU, ClinicNET, and the Colorado Rural Health Center, has the grand goal of starting new conversations about health and health care in Colorado. Health is a very personal topic, and talking about it can be difficult, but sharing our stories is important. When people share personal stories, they demonstrate vulnerability and humanity, inspiring empathy and understanding. Stories help people connect with one another—it’s the most powerful form of communication we have. We hoped that when people listened to their neighbor’s story, and shared their own, it would spark new, meaningful conversations.
As it comes to a close now three years after it began, I am reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned and the ways in which our work at CCMU has been affected:
Authentic, personal stories are more powerful than data and opinions. Stories are a person’s truth and reality, and it’s much more difficult to argue with that than it is simply with data or opinions. We may know that 16% of Coloradans are uninsured, but hearing how being uninsured has affected one person’s life can inspire compassion and empathy. When these personal truths are paired with community-specific data, we have seen time and again that it inspires a more productive discussion.
Storytelling is a tool that can help us overcome fear and confusion. Whether fear comes from misconceptions about health reform or a scary diagnosis, storytelling can begin to assuage our concerns and help us connect on a more human level. When Dr. Browde spoke at CCMU’s 2012 luncheon, he explained that patients have improved outcomes when their providers listen to their whole story. It reduces anxiety and decreases misunderstandings. Fear often clouds our judgment and can be counterproductive to solutions on both a personal and statewide level.
Everyone’s experience is unique, but the broad themes are the same. We have heard many stories of Coloradans struggling with coverage and access to health care. Many have difficulty navigating the health care system, and still more experience complex health conditions. We have also heard about many treasured relationships with providers and remarkable personal transformations. Similarly, every community in Colorado faces different health care challenges, but broadly we share the same vision and goals for a healthier Colorado, and will have to overcome the same obstacles along the way.
In the past three years, we have recorded more than 250 stories for Colorado HealthStory. We’ve visited and heard from storytellers in 27 counties. Our team has traveled more than 3,000 miles. We’ve interacted with eight distinct communities. I wish I knew the number of lives we’ve affected through this project. It has most certainly affected me, and I know it has had a profound effect on the entire Colorado HealthStory team and our respective organizations. I’m proud of how this work has helped remind us all that real lives are at stake in our health care system, and they deserve to have a voice. In the future, we will continue to use storytelling as a means to engage with individuals and communities, develop relationships with leaders across the state, and implement positive change.
Above all, being a part of the Colorado HealthStory project and process has reinforced my desire to do clinical work and provide primary care to those in need. I have a deeper understanding and empathy for both patient and provider experiences. I can’t wait to bring storytelling into my exam room.