Storytelling to heal

Science Spotlight

Storytelling to heal

Sept. 19, 2016

Participants working on creating their digital stories using Sony Movie Studio Software in the computer lab at KDNA Northwest Communities Education Center in Granger, Washington.
Image provided by Katherine Briant

Spanning time and cultures, storytelling has served as an invaluable tool for humans. Storytelling, in its various forms, music, poetry, etc., can be used to promote healing; both the storyteller and the receiver of the story experience healing benefits. The value of storytelling has caught the attention of the medical profession, for instance, Columbia University Medical Center recognizes that storytelling or "narrative medicine" fortifies clinical practice, and thus began the Program in Narrative Medicine to help physicians, nurses, social workers, and all those interested in the intersection between narrative and medicine improve the effectiveness of care by developing these skills with patients and colleagues.

Given today’s technology-driven state, digital stories, 3- to 5-minute videos of a storyteller’s voice, music, and text, may provide a more accessible method of storytelling and thus healing. To explore this theory, Katherine Briant, Dr. Beti Thompson, and colleagues (Public Health Sciences Division) sought out to examine if digital storytelling could be a culturally pertinent tool for Hispanics/Latinos of Mexican origin to share their experiences with cancer or other diseases. The results from their pilot project were recently published in Health Promotion Practice.

This project was implemented in the Lower Yakima Valley of Washington State, a rural and agricultural area in Eastern Washington. Creative Narrations, a social change consulting collaborative, delivered a "train-the-trainer" workshop for nine promotores, bilingual/bicultural-trained staff of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Center for Community Health Promotion (FHCRC CCHP). As part of this workshop, all nine promotores created digital stories.

The promotores, now trained in the digital storytelling approach, held community digital storytelling workshops. Workshops were open to community members 18 years or older who were willing to participate in a 2-hour weekly meeting over 5 weeks to create their own digital story about a health or illness related experience. Community participants created stories that spanned a wide variety of health-related topics from breast cancer to food bank access. One-on-one Interviews were conducted on community participants (N= 10) after the workshops. All interviewees self identified as Hispanic/Latino.

One overarching theme from these interviews emerged: the power of storytelling. The digital storytelling process fostered a sense of community by providing a space for people to share their story and connect with others around their experiences. Furthermore, this process gave participants the opportunity to self-reflect.

Ms. Briant elaborates on the findings of this study, "Digital storytelling can play an important role in healing. In this study we learned that digital storytelling is a powerful tool for Hispanic/Latino disease survivors.  Storytellers mentioned that the process of creating their digital stories had a therapeutic effect; it allowed them to reflect on a past experience with a disease in a way they had never had the chance to do so.  It also gave them the chance to connect with others who had gone through a similar experience."

Furthermore, digital stories can play an important role in health communication, as Ms. Briant notes, "Participants hoped that their stories could serve as a mechanism for others to learn about their disease.  In a time where we hear many different messages about health, digital stories can provide a medium for people to get health and/or disease prevention information in an understandable way from other survivors of those experiences – regardless of one’s literacy level.  Because messages are embedded in a story, viewers have the opportunity to see people who are like them in the video…and that can make is seem more authentic to the viewer.  I believe that makes the message resonate with the viewer."

Funding for this study was provided by the National Cancer Institute from the National Institutes of Health.


Briant KJ,Halter A,Marchello N,Escareno M,Thompson B. 2016. The Power of Digital Storytelling as a Culturally Relevant Health Promotion Tool. Health Promotion Practice. 1524839916658023.