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The problem with … using stories as a source of evidence and learning
  1. Rick Iedema
  1. School of Life Sciences and Medicine, King's College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Rick Iedema, School of Life Sciences & Medicine, Kings College London, Guy’s Campus, London, SE11UL, UK; rick.iedema{at}

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Since time immemorial, stories have played a central role in teaching us about life.1 Stories have also thrown light on complex aspects of contemporary care, such as doctors’ reasoning,2 patients’ experiences,3 clinical training4 and care practices.5 This is an acknowledgement of stories’ significance for acculturating us into social norms and sanctioned practices, and teaching us about risks, challenges and incidents. The power of stories to teach us about these matters lies in their ability to affect us at multiple levels. ‘Little stories’ nurture and ground our individual self and our identity.6 ‘Big stories’ shape the cultural, intellectual and spiritual contours of our communities.7 In these ways, stories permeate our sense of self, our everyday interactions, our communities and our future.

Currently, stories are accruing increasing scientific interest in healthcare.8 The story’s rise in scientific estimation is due not just to its accessibility for diverse audiences as compared with that of conventional scientific discourse. The story’s rise in prominence is also due to the realisation that anecdotes are not as trivial as they were once deemed to be. In the digital sphere, for example, anecdotes can accumulate into anecdata: strains of ‘soft information’ percolate up from the details of numerous conversations. As weak signals, stories can shed early light on difficult-to-spot developments and as-yet non-evident patterns.9 The growing capacity and fine-tuning of online data mining enable us to exploit this type of ‘soft’ information for predictive purposes.10 It is therefore understandable that stories are increasingly seen as playing an important role in our learning about how to prevent unexpected events in care. But, how should this be done? And what really makes ‘a story’?

To start with the second question, a story has three defining features. First, a story can …

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  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was first published. The article type was incorrect, an abstract was removed and the author's address was updated.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.