Benefits of chance meetings with other cancer patients

My wife had just finished meeting with her medical oncologist for her bi-annual check-up at MD Anderson’s Thoracic Clinic.

We were sitting in an area called “the Park” rehashing what her doctor had said when a mother and her daughter sat down at our table.   There were lots of empty seats in area but for some reason they decided to sit with us.  Call it serendipity.   It turned out that both my wife and Megan (the daughter) had just gotten “good news” from their respective oncologists.

We ended up talking with our new friends for one and a half hours – my wife and the daughter about the travails of cancer (hair loss, uncertainty, and so on) – the mother and I about care giver stuff (insurance authorization, navigating the health system, etc.).  My wife and I always feel so energized after “talking story” with other dealing with the same issues.   You see these “chance meeting” always happen to us … and a lot of other patients as well I suspect.

I have always supposed that there was some “therapeutic benefit” to these chance meetings with other cancer patients.    Turns out I was right according to a recent study of hypertensive patients in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study explored the use of culturally-appropriate “storytelling” among a population of inner-city African-Americans (71% women) diagnosed with hypertension.   In the study, an experimental group of patients received a DVD showing “people just like them” talking about their experiences living with high blood pressure.  For example, lessons learned about how to best interact with their physicians, and strategies to increase medication adherence.   A control group received a general introductory DVD on hypertension without the “storytelling.”

The study found that that patients diagnosed with uncontrolled hypertension benefited the most from receiving culturally sensitive “storytelling” messages promoting hypertension control.  People in the experimental group (at 3 months post baseline) had an 11mm Hg greater reduction in systolic blood pressure than the control group.  Smaller reductions (6mm) were also found for diastolic blood pressure among the experimental group.  No change in systolic or diastolic blood pressure was found among patients in the experimental group diagnosed with controlled hypertension.   Blood pressure reduction in these patients from baseline to 6 to 9 months also favored the intervention group for systolic and diastolic blood pressures.

Researchers theorized that narratives or “storytelling” can break down cognitive resistance people may have to behavior change by helping listeners:

  • make meaning of their lives
  • actively engage them in their care
  • influence  their health behavior
  • get them to imagine picture themselves taking part in the same behavior/action

So what does this mean for you?

Storytelling may well turn out to be an effective, inexpensive, and highly appealing strategy for engaging patients with all kinds of conditions in behavior change.  Primary Care Medical Groups, Accountable Care Organizations, Health Plans, Population Health Management and Disease Management Vendors should explore ways of “pairing up” culturally-like patients … say with uncontrolled hypertensive patients with culturally similar patients who have successfully gotten their condition under control. Same thing diabetes, asthma and other conditions. Social media, e-mail and the telephone are ways that patients can begin sharing their stories … and improving health outcomes.

Steve Wilkins is a former hospital executive and consumer health behavior researcher who blogs at Mind The Gap.

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  • John M. Hays

    About this time five years ago, I had a grapefruit size tumor and my sigmoid colon removed. The follow-up PET scan showed a similar size lung tumor that happened to be wrapped around my vena cava and inoperable.

    So I went the chemo/radiation route for the lung cancer. Well, as most folks know, the chemo hits the same day of the week, typically every couple of weeks for 3-4 months. And as you recall, if having gone through it,l all the day’s chemo patients are given the same early morning appointments to sit around waiting on the oncologist. The patients and their friend/driver are usually talking only to one another in whispers while the other patients and their friends/drivers try to find a interesting magazine to read. The last thing they do is talk to one another even someone sitting beside them.
    Well, that wasn’t exactly my style. I guess I started with wise cracks about the never changed TV channel and then advanced the topics until the 30+ of us, about half patients, in the waiting room actually began communicating.
    We made some interesting discoveries:
    - Two patients were first cousins who had not seen each other for 40+ years and did not realize they lived only about 50 miles apart,
    - Two patients were born nearly the same day and had grown up as next door neighbors as nearly inseperable (sic?) friends until one moved away at about age ten….and they lost contact in their early teen years. Again, they lived relatively close together, not even a long distance call away.
    My failures were never being able to convince my fellow patients that a double chili-cheeseburger with an extra hand full of onions and an order of tater tots and a chocolate malt with extra malt was an effective alternative to the nausea they were having while hooked to the chemo tubes. None of them ever took me up on my offer to buy them lunch when I ordered and had it delivered. And I could never convince them it was an over-reaction to grab their barf bags and begin making crude noises when the pleasant odor of chopped onions wafted to their noses.
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