‘My Life, My Story’ Helps VA Patients Share More with Their Physicians
Recent studies show that the majority of U.S. physicians spend only 15-20 minutes with each patient, with some spending as little as 9 minutes with each. In a world where doctors feel rushed to see as many patients as possible, and are inundated with charts, vitals, and lists of symptoms, they work to make the best diagnosis in a limited time.
But what if there’s more to the story? Understanding a person’s full story – or at least the highlights and major milestones from their own perspective – may very well help a doctor make a better diagnosis as to why the patient is experiencing their symptoms.
For veterans in particular, life experiences in their service and the things they’ve seen and done may give a fuller picture. Suddenly that aging senior who doesn’t say much has a complete story, one in which he or she might have been a true war hero. That young veteran may be carrying the weight of his or her war but is unwilling or unable to try to explain it all in 10 minutes.
So what is the solution for giving time-pressed doctors a true insight into their patients’ full stories?
The answer is a new program being pioneered at seven Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals around the nation, with the “My Life, My Story” program. Since the start of the program in 2013, trained volunteers have interviewed more than 600 veterans in their hospital rooms, asking them questions about their life story, including life before and after their service. They then compile the answers into a story, then return later to have the veteran review and edit the story as desired. The final story is included in the patient’s medical chart, offering physicians and nurses an instant insight into the person they are treating.
Doctors involved in the program find this extra information invaluable, as it can help them better understand the patient and increase the chance of making a helpful diagnosis. It can also help build a report and relationship more quickly, helping identify common ground or topics of conversation. One example is a veteran who comes in needing an evaluation of their health in order to apply for the veterans Aid and Attendance pension benefit.
Many veterans may not want to delve into the most difficult but important moments in their lives, but having it there on their records ensures that the doctor is aware without having to rehash them repeatedly. Most doctors would agree that there is a mind-body connection, and things a person has experienced during war – or the path their life has taken since – can directly impact their health and wellbeing. Understanding if a person is lonely, depressed, or hyper-vigilant can all give medical professionals more helpful tools for improving the veteran’s life.
Some VA primary care providers are also experimenting with transcribing and sharing their own stories, in their own voice, handing out a typed bio and background that can be read while the patient is waiting for his or her appointment. Establishing this story can help a patient feel more comfortable with their doctor, and even find common ground in life experiences.
As the program continues to expand, the VA is working on providing other clinics a “My Story, My Life” toolkit to get volunteers trained and ready to work with veterans. Many volunteers see the program as a way to thank veterans by spending time with them, and giving them a chance to record and share their stories.
Many volunteers explain that having someone stopping by to visit, unrushed, with the sole purpose of listening to the veteran’s story and helping them record it, can really mean so much to those in the clinics. When they return to review the story, they often return as a friend, with many great additional conversations taking place. And for a veteran, truly feeling heard and knowing your story is recorded for posterity – and in a way where your doctor can truly understand all the things you’d like to tell them – My Life, My Story is exactly what they need to find their voice.
Written by Megan Hammons