How patient stories can enhance health websites

Stories can enhance health websites because they resonate with health information seekers, who find support and encouragement from the experiences of others like them. Two excellent examples are Weight Watchers’ Success Stories and Livestrong.org’s Survivorship Stories. Both sites include extensive libraries of well-written stories about people’s experiences losing weight and surviving cancer, respectively.

Because of the effectiveness of stories in health websites like these, I challenge my Online Consumer Health students to consider how the inclusion of stories can enhance the websites they design in class. In one assignment, they first review the purpose, length, transparency of authorship, writing style, and perceived accuracy of stories on health websites. Then they either write or reuse stories from other websites for their own sites.

In my constant search for examples to use in class, I came across the stories in RediscoverYourGo. I contacted the developer to learn about the planning and design of the website, particularly how the decision was made to use stories.

I spoke with Simon Lee, CEO of Lee-Stafford on February 8, 2010. RediscoverYourGo was developed for a medical device company, Smith & Nephew, that manufactures parts for hip and knee implants. On the home page, “stories” is one of 4 tabs on the left and 3 links to stories are featured on the lower right next to “Learn from real patients who have rediscovered what it means to live pain free.” The “stories” tab leads to a list of the replacement products headed by, “Real people who have rediscovered their go.”

Each replacement product has story snippets from people who have had surgery to implant that product. The story snippets are brief, first-person quotes and they include the name (generally the first name and last initial but in some cases the full name), city, and product, illustrated by a photograph. Rather than use a headshot, many show active poses and look like they were taken informally, not by a professional photographer (in contrast to the posed “after” pictures on Weight Watchers). There is some duplication, with some people appearing in more than one category, presumably because the person has used multiple products. The first person quotes were extracted from a letter or interview with, as Simon said, “100% real patients.”

Selecting a snippet leads to a longer story in the third person about the person’s experience with pain, learning about and contacting the surgeon, undergoing the surgery, recovering, and developing a post-surgery active lifestyle. The header includes more about the person, including occupation, a larger version of the snippet photograph, and a picture of the replacement product. Many of the stories identify the storyteller’s age, and the photographs indicate age as well. Stories are more likely to resonate with someone who identifies with the storyteller, which, in this case, might be because of replacement product, age, or recreational activity. Weight Watchers facilitates this by sorting stories by gender, age, or total weight loss and inviting a viewer to ”Read about someone like you.”

The use of stories is “a toe in the water” to create an online community for patients with Smith & Nephew products. What lay behind the use of stories, Simon told me, was the desire to create a “patient ambassador network” to capitalize on patient stories. Often patients with debilitating pain became advocates for the surgeon who “fixed” their problem: they wrote letters thanking the doctors who performed their replacement surgery for giving them their life back and were eager to discuss their outcomes with others.

Simon believes the more open use of social media or forums was not possible because of concerns about monitoring, disclosures and privacy, a concern shared by all the major orthopedic and spine device companies. Highlighting patient experiences on a website seemed the best alternative.

The overall website design goal was to modernize the brand and create more youthful and non-surgical-looking site as befitting one of the big growth areas: patients 45+. Previously, the primary target audience was 65+. The focus on the new demographic is because a growing number of younger people are seeking partial replacements. The potential exists that they will then become loyal customers to the brand and their surgeon.

Simon believes that healthcare is local and that decisions to choose care are “based on who can treat me and where can I be treated.” Furthermore he believes that “educated patients are happy patients and happy patients are advocates for the doctor who ‘healed’ them.”

Lisa Gualtieri is Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and blogs at her self-titled site, Lisa Neal Gualtieri.

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  • Michael F. Mirochna, MD

    I love patient success stories, but when it revolves around medical device companies, a little less likable. As a believer in evidence based medicine, I don’t like consumer based medicine.

  • http://www.medicalbilldog.com Dennis (Investigator/Negotiator) at Medical BillDog

    I hope you’re right Lisa. I’ve always been a believer in the idea that, while the plural of anecdote really is data. I know that hearing real people talking about their experiences has always been easier for me to identify with than impersonal and hypothetical suggestions. My wife and I have based our livelihood on the idea that our experiences with the medical community are more of less universal. For an example of this kind of parallel, see my blog entry from June, That Can’t Happen to Me.

  • http://www.myhealthcommunity.net/ Gail Medeiros

    When hospitals or healthcare sites encourage a person to reveal so much personal information about themselves while at the same time revealing medical information, is anyone else worried about the consequences that maybe these people don’t understand could result?
    “Many of the stories identify the storyteller’s age, and the photographs indicate age as well. ”
    Including occupation, photographs, pt age and / or name flies in the face at everything HIPAA has tried to address. When online health consumer sites and now many hospital facebook pages encourage the patients or parents of children to share their personal stories why are they not insisting that they do it anonymously?

  • bev M.D.

    I worry about these stories being basically testimonials similar to those placed on any site like Joe’s auto repair. They are cherry picked and do not address very real possible complications like infection/loosening of the joint with possible removal. Total joints should be a last resort, not a first one by overly, shall we say, eager surgeons who need business. Who is advocating for that POV?

  • http://www.eveharris.net Eve Harris

    Wow, marketing prostheses DTC is certainly very 21st Century. It’s always advisable to check the needle on your “crap meter” (thx, Rheingold). But let’s not lose the message about the power of storytelling.