Storytelling: Connecting the mind and heart

By: Kaitlin Musick, Student Pharmacist

One in 5 black patients with a major chronic condition reported experiencing discrimination in health care in 2014.1 Americans are frequently bombarded with statistics and figures regarding discrimination, but nothing resonates with people more than the alarming stories of those directly affected. Brent Dykes, Director of Data Strategy at Domo, said it best: “People hear statistics, but they feel stories.”2

Storytelling allows us to inspire and engage students, while appealing to their sense of humanity. Additionally, there is now evidence to suggest that teaching with emotional content increases the likelihood that students retain information.3 Storytelling has been used within the classroom to enhance self-esteem, teach cultural sensitivity, teach ethics, develop critical thinking skills, provide role modeling, and teach communication.4 Furthermore, storytelling in the classroom can help prepare students for the people and stories they will encounter during their experiential education experiences. These abilities are vital to the teaching of many topics, but may be especially powerful when teaching about cultural humility, diversity, and inclusion. A diversity and inclusion panel incorporated into a required leadership course at University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy provides an example of how stories can add value to the classroom.

Structure of Panel:

The panel included the following five panelists from the Lexington, Kentucky community:

  • Transgender activist
  • Patient recovering from substance use disorder
  • Pharmacist specializing in the psychiatric treatment of veterans with substance use disorder
  • Gay-identifying psychotherapist who works with LGBTQ students
  • Registered nurse at a clinic specializing in the care of underserved patients including migrant farm workers, refugees, and uninsured patients.

Two consecutive hours were allotted to the panel, with the first consisting of questions prepared by the panel coordinators ahead of time. During the second hour, students utilized an online forum to anonymously submit questions to the panel. A staff member moderated the panel discussion. The majority of panel questions focused on the impact that pharmacists, as well as other healthcare professionals, can have on patients in a vulnerable state.

For example, the panelist recovering from substance use disorder described the stigma they experienced while filling their prescription for medication-assisted therapy at a local pharmacy. The panelist described the shame they felt when they were treated in this way and the resulting drive to seek out a different pharmacist to continue their care. The panelist that works closely with refugees discussed the patience, creativity, and persistence that is required of health care professionals working with those from cultures very different from our own. They shared first-hand stories of improvements in patient care because a provider was willing to spend additional time learning about a patient’s culture and beliefs. Another panelist described the anxiety that comes with seeking care from a new health care provider as a member of the LGBTQ community due to fear of judgement, stigmatization, or mistreatment. The panelist also described strategies that other providers have implemented to let new patients know they are entering into a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment. Some of these examples included gender-neutral bathrooms, appropriate signage in the waiting area, inclusive questions on intake forms, and emphasis on utilization of desired pronouns for every patient. These stories resonated with many students and allowed them to clearly see the impact their behaviors and actions have on patients.

Was this Strategy Effective?

Aside from the visuals of students in rapt attention, following the panel, feedback was gathered via an optional survey utilizing likert scales. Approximately 25% of the class completed this survey. Results were generally positive with 68% of respondents being interested or extremely interested in the panel and stated that the panel greatly sparked their interest in other related topics. Free response comments indicated a desire to hear directly from individuals that can address other aspects of diversity, inclusion, and cultural humility. Topics such as race, homelessness, rural populations, Latino culture, and religious diversity were specifically requested. Several students also expressed a desire to learn appropriate terminology, particularly related to the LGBTQ community, prior to the panel.

Whose Story do your Students Need to Hear?

In order to effectively teach, lessons must appeal to both students’ emotions and reasoning. While many other aspects of our cultural humility teaching focuses on educating students about other cultures and special populations, the panel appealed to their emotions and sense of humanity. The first-hand sharing of stories leaves a lasting impression of the importance of these topics.

A University of California San Francisco student pharmacist said, “There is a world of humanity behind every human being – taking the time to discover that will make you a better pharmacist, a better teacher.”5 Story telling opens the door to this world of humanity. As you work to teach your students about cultural humility, diversity, and inclusion, consider asking yourself: whose story do my students need to hear?

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Dr. David Burgess, Dr. Jeff Cain, and Dr. H Andrew Wilsey for their mentorship and contributions.


  1. Nguyen TT, Vable AM, Glymour MM, Nuru-Jeter A. Trends for Reported Discrimination in Health Care in a National Sample of Older Adults with Chronic Conditions. J Gen Intern Med. 2018;33(3):291-297.
  2. Dykes B. Data Storytelling: The Essential Data Science Skill Everyone Needs. Forbes. Published March 31, 2016. Accessed August 30, 2019.
  3. Gooding HC, Mann K, Armstrong E. Twelve tips for applying the science of learning to health professions education, Med Teach. 2017;39(1):26-31.
  4. Davidhizar R, Lonser G. Storytelling as a teaching technique. Nurse Educ. 2003;28(5):217-21.
  5. Maine L, Vogt E. The courage to teach caring. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009;73(8):138.

Kaitlin Musick is a fourth-year student pharmacist at University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include implementation of near-peer learning and cultural humility education in professional degree programs. In her free time, Kaitlin enjoys traveling with her friends and family and trying new, local restaurants.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching & Learning

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