'It was my first real local experience of the power of the patient's story, and has led to dramatic improvements in our stillbirth rates today'

Many of us instinctively understand the power of stories - that is why we remember the tales we were told in childhood.

These might be books that were read to us, or family folklore passed from one generation to the next. In some cultures, storytelling is still prevalent as an important way to pass on information or skills. But what is the role of storytelling in health, and how can it support service improvement and organisational transformation?

Stories connect with emotion. Compelling stories touch hearts and minds in a way logic and reason do not. As a chief executive some years ago, I met with 40 Asian women in the Ghar-Se-Ghar community centre in Luton. They had all had stillbirths and told us, through interpreters, about their harrowing experiences accessing healthcare, including our maternity unit.

I was moved by their stories, as were the two obstetricians at the meeting. The experience shifted our attitude, so much so that the primary care trust chief executive who was with us that day still says it is one of the best day's work she has ever done.

Taking action

The stories moved us to action. We began to talk about avoidable stillbirths. We gave mobile phones to interpreters so they could be available 24 hours a day. We introduced new systems to manage women with higher-risk pregnancies. It was my first real local experience of the power of the patient's story, and has led to dramatic improvements in our stillbirth rates today.

Similarly, my colleagues and I have been deeply moved by the patients and their relatives who have related their experiences of errors in healthcare. This has motivated us to make patient safety our top priority. We have also, through our Safer Patients Initiative, involved patients who have been harmed while in our care.

Opportunities to hear patients' experiences in such a direct way may be limited. This is why at Luton and Dunstable Hospital we have been experimenting with video.

Do stories lose their power when retold by third parties? Possibly, but we can all improve our storytelling potential. Great orators undoubtedly move people to join campaigns, seek change and take action.

I believe we can make more use of stories in our efforts to change and transform the service. I have been writing my own story of improvement over the past eight years at Luton and Dunstable. It sets out my vision for the future, with the hospital leading the NHS in patient safety.

It is a very personal story, one I am passionate about. I hope staff will be inspired by it, consider their own stories, and use the narrative to engage people in the next stage of transformation.

Stories can aid communication, support learning and promote creativity and innovation. Data, analysis and evidence also play an important part in change. But next time you need to give a presentation, why not consider telling a story?

Stephen Ramsden is chief executive of Luton and Dunstable Hospital foundation trust. Visit us here to read his regular online series on the relationship between good management and safety, which starts on 6 September