The power of stories

Care Quality Commission
4 min readNov 19, 2014

Andrea Sutcliffe, Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care at the Care Quality Commission.

Parables, fairytales, a book at bedtime — stories have been a part of our lives since time immemorial. Drawn from reality or imagination, we have turned them into thought-provoking novels, pure escapism and comic cartoons; gripping movies and tender TV dramas; beautiful ballet and dramatic operas; and we have used them in advertising to sell anything and everything. Just take a look at all the Christmas adverts (especially Sainsbury’s) if you need convincing.

Stories are powerful in health and social care too and were at the heart of a recent conference organised by The King’s Fund and The Point of Care Foundation about the power of narrative, case histories and numbers. This was one of those conferences I was attending briefly to speak at but so wished I could have stayed all day.


Fortunately I was able to hear Professor Trisha Greenhalgh’s opening address — which was brilliant. She shared a story about Ebola taken from The Times and used it to show how stories can help to explore different perspectives, enhance understanding and encourage further discussion. A précis could not do Trisha’s eloquence justice so please take a few minutes to read it.

Connor Sparrowhawk

I missed many good speakers, but I was particularly sad to miss Dr Sara Ryan who shared her family’s story about her son Connor Sparrowhawk. Connor, a young man with learning disabilities and epilepsy tragically died on 4 July 2013 in a bath on an NHS Assessment and Treatment Unit. He would have been 20 on Monday.

I have met Sara on a number of occasions and she is remarkable — not least in her ability to share her unbearably distressing story in a way that is seeking to improve things for other people. When we first met we discussed how her experience could influence the way CQC carries out inspections of services for people with learning disabilities. Sara also presented at The Three Lives event CQC reported on in June. In her presentation at The King’s Fund Sara emphasised the importance of listening carefully because our understanding of health and social care experience is impoverished when we do not listen properly to what people who are usually unheard have to say. And now with other campaigners, Sara is advocating a change in the law so that disabled people are fully included in their communities and services are available so that disabled people can live at home.

One real-life story that has been shared and has had the power to touch many lives and make a difference.

Shared Lives

I heard some more stories last week when I was invited to speak at the Shared Lives conference in Leeds. The night before there was a dinner — and an unexpected treat for me, a ceilidh. After the dinner and before the dancing, we watched a film about Shared Lives which you can see on the Shared Lives Plus website. We then heard from the two Shared Lives Carers, Graham and Lorna; the three young women who live with them — Clare, Ayisha and Joanne; and Clare’s mum Helen.

The film gives you a great insight into the Shared Lives story and, in their speeches, we heard why everyone involved was so positive about the difference Shared Lives can make in people’s lives. Graham described it as “Being independent but not alone” — which I thought was a wonderful way to sum up the ethos and impact of Shared Lives. One of the things they all highlighted was that more people should know about Shared Lives — so Clare, Ayisha and Joanne, that’s just what I am doing by sharing your story in this blog. Oh, and thanks for being such great dance partners!

Behind every number is a human story

But back to The King’s Fund — I had been asked to explain how CQC was using information, numbers and the voice of people using services as part of our new approach to inspecting health and care services. Of course, data and numbers are important and our hospital team have a lot more than we do in adult social care — as you can see from the slides. But listening to the voice of people using services is critical — in advance of inspections to help us determine when and what to inspect; and during inspections so we get a real sense of people’s experience to answer the questions — is the service safe, caring, effective, responsive and well-led.

This can get us into difficult territory, as it is not our role to resolve individual complaints or get redress for people using services. That has to be the responsibility of the provider and then depending on the service, the Local Government Ombudsman or Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman if people remain unsatisfied. But what we must do is listen to those stories and use that insight to inform our regulatory response. As Sara advised in her presentation, we have to listen properly — and that means using our powers to take appropriate action about what we have heard.

Stories are not just for bedtime!

Originally published at



Care Quality Commission

We make sure health and social care services provide people with safe, effective, compassionate, high-quality care and we encourage care services to improve.