Listening Lab: Harnessing the power of storytelling

In medicine—as with much of life—listening matters. Consider Teya Sepinuck. A few years ago, when checking in for a procedure, her nurse sat at a computer with her back turned when asking her two standard but personal questions (if she’d been the victim of abuse or felt depressed). Sepunick replied “no” but told the nurse even if the answer had been yes, “I wouldn’t tell you because I don’t feel like you care…. I left there thinking, is this really how we ask vulnerable people traumatic questions about their lives?”

Person from Penn Medicine standing at one of the Listening Lab stations holding a headphone to their ear.
Created by patients, caregivers, staff, and providers, the Penn Medicine Listening Lab is a storytelling initiative that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine)

Studies show that the simple act of listening seems to have taken a back seat in clinical care. An article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that in almost 70% of studied encounters, the clinician interrupted the patient after a median of just 11 seconds. Another article, in Health Affairs, found a majority of the patients they studied reported having interactions with providers that lacked compassion. While advances in research and technology have benefitted patients on many levels, these changes have also resulted in the loss of some of medicine’s “humanity.”

But the pendulum is slowly swinging back to an environment where listening and sharing experiences—and learning from them—are moving to the foreground. At Penn Medicine, the Listening Lab is proving to be an important part of that transition.

The Listening Lab is an online storytelling initiative that embraces the simple act of listening and sharing, and advocates for the power of listening as a form of care. The website is home to a growing library of audio stories written and recorded by Penn Medicine staff, providers, patients, and caregivers that bring to life important experiences and reflections on aspects of health care that aren’t always discussed. Launched in 2019 under the sponsorship of the Patient Experience Leadership Team at Penn Medicine Academy (PMA), its goal is to gather and share stories about the importance of being present, nurturing compassionate relationships, and empowering communities. “It is grounded in the understanding that it can be empowering and therapeutic to hear and feel heard by another,” says Stephanie Kindt, senior consultant of Penn Medicine Experience.

Aaron Levy, of the University’s School of Arts and Sciences, and a special advisor for health and humanities initiatives in PMA, created the Listening Lab and collaborates with Kindt and Sepinuck—a member of HUP’s Patient and Family Advisory Council—as well as a planning committee comprising members from throughout Penn Medicine to continually expand its impact.

Listening Lab stories are shared in meetings and huddles, in leadership events, and in systemwide celebrations, such as Safety Week. They appear in the COVID-19 CEO email updates, which go to all employees, and Penn Medicine Together, which offers resources and strategies to help employees cope with anxiety and stress.

This story is by Sally Sapega. Read more at Penn Medicine News.