The ripple effect of authentic patient stories

Too often as educators we are short-sighted; seeing only the immediate impact of our teaching on students, but forgetting that every hour of every day a nurse is providing person-centred, safe and effective care because of something they learned from us. Emails like the one below remind us of the impact of our teaching …

Hi Tracy

I had to share this moment with you! I have been in hospital having surgery. I was extremely impressed at the precise way procedures were carried out by one of the nurses, especially with taking obs and the pain management etc. She was fantastic, not missing a detail in all the procedures she was doing. So much so that I commented on the professional way she went about her duties. It prompted me to ask where she had trained and it was Newcastle.

The conversation continued and she mentioned learning about a girl called Vanessa. She said she had never forgotten what she had learned about patient safety from Vanessa’s story. I then let her know that I was Vanessa’s father. She became a bit overwhelmed and said she would never forget that moment.

Thanks for being part of Vanessa’s legacy.

 Regards Warren Anderson


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The back story to this email is well known to many people but I’ll summarise it here. Vanessa Anderson died in hospital as a result of a respiratory arrest caused by a series of human and systems errors. She was 16 and a vibrant, healthy and outgoing young woman. According to the NSW Deputy State Coroner:

The death of Vanessa was tragic and avoidable. The circumstances should remain in the minds of all medical practitioners, nursing staff and hospital administrators. Vanessa’s case should be used as a precedent to highlight how individual errors of judgment, failure to communicate, failure to record accurately and poor management of staff resources, cumulatively led to the worst possible outcome for Vanessa and her family [1].

Warren’s email reminded me that whenever we are teaching we need a dual perspective, focusing on both the students in front of us, and the people … just over the horizon … who they will care for in the not too distant future. This dual perspective influences what and how we teach and reminds us of the value and purpose of our work. Each year I share Vanessa’s story as part of a series of patient safety lectures for nursing students and, like many authentic and meaningful stories, it creates an ongoing ripple effect and a catalyst for learning.

Well told patient stories can portray tacit and sometimes unappreciated elements of practice. By promoting a strong emotional resonance and feelings of empathy, humility and concern, patient stories can illustrate pervasive and recurring clinical problems and provide students with a powerful and effective way to learn, remember and reflect. A word of caution though … educators must transform these stories into meaningful learning experiences that can empower students to become change agents and patient safety champions. The focus should be on practice improvement, and not just on the negative aspects of healthcare. I often conclude my lectures with a ‘call to action’ and the the words of Dr Zuess:

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  1. Vanessa’s story

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