Recasting the Characters in the Healthcare Story

By Drake Pusey, Founder & Principal Strategist at Volition Project

The mists part, as a chill breeze blows down from the glorious mountain peak. A robed figure descends, stern and almost shining with knowledge. The oracle, the healer, the master of life itself, heroic in his power, gazes upon you, one of many seeking to be healed. Will his heroic path cross yours? Will he stop on his journey to bless you with his expertise? You hope and pray that he will have time for you, that his stern demeanor will soften to one of benevolence. It’s up to him.

Hold on. Is this a story you want to be a part of? Cue the rewind sounds. Clean the lens.

You try really hard. Against all odds, you’re making it happen. But sometimes, you get caught between a rock and a hard place, or life throws you a curveball. Suddenly, you need to make a pit stop on the heroic road of life. You need repairs. Luckily, you know just where to go. When you need help, she’s there for you. And she’s gifted in the healing arts. And by now, she’s used to what you get yourself into, and she’s prepared. With a quick patch, and some advice you should have listened to last time, you’re on your way. There’s stuff to do. And you’re ready to tackle it.

Cheesy, right? But you get the point. Nobody wants to be a supplicant. Everyone is the main character in their own story. Treat them as such.

It’s an easy trap to fall into (especially for marketers): talking about yourself, centering the story on your organization. It’s natural. It’s your perspective. You’re trying to explain the strengths and benefits of your organization, so you talk about your organization. But to engage with a customer in a way that builds a lasting relationship, we need to put their perspective first. And from their perspective, they’re the protagonist. They may not feel like a “hero” per se, but they probably wish they were. And if they don’t feel like the main character, that’s a sad thing that we should probably help them with.

How do we center the customer in the stories we tell?

So the customer is the protagonist – now what? Their goals are the quest. Their challenges are the obstacles. Their actions are the plot. The business KPIs of your health system are not of particular interest in this story. Those are your goals. Patients might like to know that your goals are aligned, but the story doesn’t end when you achieve your goals – it only ends when they achieve theirs.

And so that makes your institution – or more accurately your employees – characters in your customer’s story. Supporting characters. There’s no shame in that game! Some of the best characters in our favorite stories were in supporting roles: the genie in Aladdin; The Wolf in Pulp Fiction; R2-D2 (and Chewbacca!).

If we shift from the movie metaphor to TV series, we recognize something else: you’re a repeating guest star, at best. You appear in an episode, when needed. But that episode is not the whole story. The customer’s arc plot is way bigger than that. And as a supporting character, you need to understand the trajectory of that arc. How did the protagonist get to this point? Where do they want to go from here? How will this season end and what will next season be about?

What’s in it for my healthcare organization?

Thinking in this way helps you achieve 3 major wins in customer experience design:

  1. Being innovative
    With this customer-centric mindset, your design can embody empathy and provide moments that haven’t even occurred to your competitors. Empathy is a huge driver of innovation. Invest in customer research that doesn’t just evaluate the experience you provide. Explore to understand the prologue and epilogue of each healthcare episode, and how they all tie into the customer’s arc plot. What baggage are they bringing to the table? It’s not just their medical history. There are emotional issues, preconceptions, experiences from last time around. These all need to be considered. Trauma-informed care is getting at this very issue. But there are factors that affect the customer’s mindset that might not qualify as “trauma”. No detail is too small.
  2. Being proactive
    When you see the arc plot as defined by your customers’ needs, challenges, and aspirations, you are more equipped to look ahead in their quest and address issues earlier and more seamlessly. Services are more timely, transitions are smoother, and relationships are nurtured. AI is sharpening our predictive capabilities beyond what the human attention span and capacity for analysis can provide. But again, it’s not just about the medical diagnoses. What can we predict about a patient’s appointment on a Tuesday as opposed to a Friday? How will we prepare them for their winter skiing? (They’re booking tickets already!) Business side effects may include: offerings beating competitors to market, and improvement of your leadership position.
  3. Being satisfying
    Maybe most importantly – because this is an emotional outcome – you become able to satisfy your customers at a deeper level than ever before. You’re no longer just satisfying the demands of the office visit, or the surface concerns in the waiting room – you’re putting your patients back on the paths of their lives. You are helping them accomplish the quests they chose to embark on. As the story lengthens, you are elevated from occasional guest star to ever-present sidekick. This is a huge promotion, with concrete business ramifications.

Ultimately, it always ladders up to one thing: Differentiation. 

Everything you do when you realize that the customer is the protagonist sets your organization apart. You provide things your competitors don’t, in ways they can’t. Because you know your customers better, and you notice the little things. You feel the difference when an experience fits them better. You become the trusted partner. Luke didn’t need two R2 units. Han Solo didn’t need two Wookiees. Sometimes they needed help from others, but they had their go-to – the people who helped them be heroes.


Drake Pusey founded Volition Project in 2014 and serves as its Principal Strategist to help empower people through brands that care. He uses his fluency in information architecture and frameworks to uncover the strategic alignments that create opportunities for clients. Drake is a Harvard Paulson School of Engineering Expert-in-Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and empowers the residents of his town as a Human Rights Commissioner.


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