Ask Dr. Hallberg: Patients sharing their stories helps others

Dr. Jon Hallberg
Dr. Jon Hallberg, Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health Medical Director at the University of Minnesota. He is a regular medical analyst on MPR's All Things Considered.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Jon Hallberg

Listen to a good story, and you'll feel better. That's a nice idea, but a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that when patients heard people's stories that mirrored their own, some actually did see a reduction in their blood pressure.

Our regular medical analyst, Dr. Jon Hallberg, joined All Things Considered host Tom Crann for more on these findings and the effect they could have in the clinic.

Tom Crann: Tell us how this study worked.

Jon Hallberg: They randomized about 300 people into two branches of a study. On the one side, they took people who received a DVD that had stories that talked about high blood pressure -- something that they had themselves. The other group got DVDs that were more on general health care topics such as reducing stress.

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They found that over nine to 12 months people who had uncontrolled high blood pressure, who watched the studies about people with high blood pressure, had a reduction in their readings that was as though they were on another medication. This is really significant. They had a nice drop in their blood pressure.

Crann: It sounds like better health by watching DVD on TV, but it's not quite that simple.

Hallberg: There's a lot of buzz about this study, and I think a little too much is being drawn from it. This was a relatively small study; it was with African American patients living in Birmingham, Ala., so this is one group of patients with one condition in one city.

We have to be careful not to draw too much from it, but I think it's very interesting that simply hearing and being motivated by stories of people with a similar condition seemed to have an impact on health.

Crann: The key here is to hear stories similar to your own from people like you, people who are in a similar social or economic group.

Hallberg: Right, that's what the thought is. That's about as much as we can draw from this, but there's a temptation to extrapolate from that - it's really is drawing too much at this point.

Crann: Why do you think this seems to be more effective than the doctor, the expert telling you what you should do and how it will come out?

Hallberg: I think it's always about the differential between the authority and reality - trying to make changes. We know that telling people to quit smoking sometimes results in getting people to quit, but it takes that message again and again. If you can tell that story from someone who has suffered then people might get that message.

Crann: What consequences could these findings have in a clinical setting?

Hallberg: I think that a study like this, first, promotes more studies like it. We need to look at more conditions and more ethnic groups. I think this is going to be something that bolsters our idea of having more group visits, making stories more available. I think we're going to see more coming from it.

Crann: What are you talking about when you're talking about "group visits" - is this people who share a similar chronic condition all coming to the doctor at the same time?

Hallberg: You let people talk about their conditions. There is really a power to that; having people share their real-life stories that aren't just my thoughts about something or some generic example.

Crann: Jon, thanks for coming in and shedding some light on the role of story telling in medical practice. I appreciate that.

(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR News reporter intern Anissa Stocks.)