Once Upon a Time There was a Sickness

ABC Online (Australia), April 17, 2008


Humans are natural storytellers. We’ve been doing it for 30,000 years. But about 2,500 years ago, thanks to Plato, Socrates and other ancient Greeks, we in the West switched to inquiry, dialogue, argument and reason when we had knowledge to impart. We still do today. We still tell stories, but mainly for entertainment – if we learn anything along the way, it’s more often to reinforce what we already know.

But many pre-industrial societies still use storytelling as the dominant means of imparting information.

What has this got to do with Australians and their health? A lot, if you’re a white health worker practising in Aboriginal communities. That’s the conclusion of researchers in the Northern Territory working at the front line of Aboriginal health, who’ve been using storytelling as a way of getting across complex information about diseases and treatment.

The researchers, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health (CRCAH), looked at communication between European health workers and Aboriginal patients with kidney failure undergoing kidney dialysis in Darwin. The patients were Yolngu people from north-east Arnhem Land.

Called ‘Sharing the True Stories‘, the project involved Charles Darwin University, Royal Darwin Hospital, the Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) and CRCAH.

Using discussion, pictures and role play, health workers, interpreters, Yolngu patients, family members and community elders worked together to develop storytelling techniques and metaphors to explain the story of why someone needs dialysis and what happens in treatment. The central metaphor for the dialysis machine, for example, was bread made from the cycad seed, which Yolngu people eat because they believe it flushes toxins out of the body. (The seed represented the dialysis machine.)

The project team has since incorporated the story in a series of DVDs and books, and produced others about the heart and lung, how to use an interpreter, and what happens in an operation.

So do these programs make a difference? The researchers, in their report ‘Sharing the True Stories: Stage 2 Report’, concluded that the program made a big difference: it gave Aboriginal patients an understanding of kidney disease and dialysis, more participation in treatment and better treatment outcomes.

Subjects Covered: healing, medicine

Scroll to Top