Who wants to be a story millionaire? Some thoughts on the value of Patient Opinion

So, narrative capital. The social scientist has it like this…

… the power [research participants] have to tell the stories of their lives. This ‘narrative capital’ is then located in the ‘field’ of social science research and Sen’s capability approach is introduced to prompt the question: What real opportunities do research participants have to tell the stories they value and have reason to value? It is argued that ‘narrative capital’ can be too easily squandered by the failure to recognise individual values. –Research Abstract, Michael Watts

… and the novelist like this…

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they’ve saved – having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax – but you can’t spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed. – author Kit Whitfield’s lexicon

I invoked the idea of narrative capital on this blog when I wrote about the wanton destruction of Leeds’ historic Clarence Dock: You wouldn’t burn a book, so why destroy a place with so many stories?

And last week at our first ever Service Design Thinks in Leeds I was struck once again by the power of stories, thanks to James Munro of 4IP and Screen Yorkshire-supported Patient Opinion.

Patient Opinion is a simple idea: you can write your account of being a patient in the UK’s National Health Service, read other people’s experiences and, crucially, see what NHS staff and managers are doing to make things better.

Making things better is at the core of the service: it’s founded on the insight that the NHS is well-equipped to deal with adversarial “complaints” demanding specific redress, but less so for “feedback” – negative and positive comments freely given by people who simply want to help improve the service for future patients, some with very specific suggestions, others just to say thank you.

With the help of this social enterprise, health service managers and practitioners can hear their patients’ authentic and surprising voices more clearly, and deliver better care as a result.

And at the centre of their operating model are stories. Lots of stories. Stories that have value, donated like blood:

100,000 stories per year. After 10 years, you could be a story millionaire!

It would be tempting to throw the Patient Opinion corpus into some kind of massive algorithmic natural language grinder, to present yummy infographics and Chernoff faces showing the relative happiness of different institutions, like Patient Opinion’s 4IP stablemate Schooloscope.

But that would miss the point. Yes, the Patient Opinion stories are cumulatively impressive – 25,017 and counting – but, as James explained, their power is in their uniqueness. Each story is different, nonfungible. Each narrative is differently shaped and demands a personal response from specific people.

Story, narrative capital, content, call it what you will. The value is not in the words themselves, but in the minds and actions of the “audience”: the right people in the right place hearing the right stuff at the right time, and doing something about it.

You can watch James Munro’s talk on the SD Leeds Vimeo channel.

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