Everyone likes a good story, but can a compelling narrative save lives?
Perhaps, according to an innovative study that tested the role of story telling in lowering blood pressure. Dr. Thomas Houston, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Bedford VA Medical Center, led a group of scientists that investigated how pre-recorded videos of hypertension patients talking about their medical histories helped another group of patients with high blood pressure to control their condition over several months.
Houston was intrigued by studies that suggested that communication can be a powerful tool in medicine—specifically, that engaging people by helping them to relate to someone who was either of similar background or who had had similar experiences, or both, could change their behavior to become healthier. Hypertension is notoriously difficult to control, since it is dependent on diet, exercise and mental state, and in certain populations, such as among African Americans, rates are higher than among Caucasians, and cases are more likely to remain untreated. Medical interventions with drugs, and lifestyle therapies have been relatively ineffective treatments, primarily because people find it hard to comply with the newly institute regimes. (More on Time.com: 5 New Rules for Good Health)
So Houston decided to test whether a story-telling intervention might improve blood pressure readings among a group of 230 hypertensive patients in Birmingham, AL. First, his team carefully recruited and screened their story-tellers from members of the patients’ community with whom they could most easily relate. Next, they divided their study population into two groups, one that received three interactive DVDs containing the story-tellers’ narratives of their experiences in living with and treating their hypertension, and another that were given educational discs on an unrelated health topic. The study volunteers reported that they had listened to the DVDs, and after three months, those who heard the stories of the hypertensive patients lowered their systolic blood pressure (the first number in the blood pressure reading) by an average of 6.53 points, and their diastolic pressure (the lower number) by an average of 3.05 points compared to those watching the other videos.
That may not seem like much, but while everyone in the study had been diagnosed with hypertension, Houston included volunteers whose blood pressure was both under control as well as those who could not lower their blood pressure with medications or lifestyle interventions. When looking at just the latter patients, the benefit was even greater—watching the DVDs helped this group to lower their systolic pressure by an average of 11.21 points and their diastolic pressure by an average of 6.43 points.
While the study did not address how the story-telling influenced the subjects’ behavior, Houston suspects that watching patients of similar backgrounds who had a similar medical experience helped to motivate the study subjects to either seek medical help to address their hypertension, or to comply better with already prescribed medications or diet and exercise programs. (More on Time.com: Even After a Morning Gym Session, a Day at the Desk Could Hurt Your Heart)
However the effect, as occurs with many interventions, appeared to wane after six months, when the study stopped, but Houston says that the difference in blood pressure between those who watched the story-tellers and those who observed the unrelated videos remained, suggesting that the story-telling continued to exert an effect.
“I think this is part of the expanding body of literature about the value of story-telling for assisting people in managing their health conditions,” he says. “I would envision a future where there would be a compendium of all sorts of different stories where the provider could refer patients to those that were most relevant to them.” Story-telling is perhaps one of oldest ways of communicating, and his results confirm that it may be one of the most powerful as well.