How storytelling can help save lives

Feb. 7, 2018

This piece is presented by Avera.

In many Native American populations, the likelihood of babies reaching their first birthday is much lower than the rest of the American population.

A new project using Avera clinical research is working to connect culture with educational efforts and other resources to change that daunting statistic.

“Culture can be a driving force in education, and when it comes to tribal populations, we are seeking ways to combine cultural messages and clinical best practices to help new moms keep babies as safe as possible,” said Amy Elliott, Ph.D., chief clinical research officer with the Avera Research Institute Center for Pediatrics and Community Research.

“Too often, overly western approaches have failed. The oral storytelling traditions of the Plains Native Americans are found to have an impact in our initial efforts. So we’ll continue to develop this approach.”

Elliott, along with members of her team of 16, have partnered with tribal health authorities in western South Dakota to evaluate the stories of elders, often recorded on video, and connect them to the recommended best practices of the American Academy of Pediatrics when it comes to safe sleep and reducing sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. The study is called Safe Passage, and it revealed that newborns on American Indian reservations face higher risks for sleep-related deaths.

Unsafe sleep environments, such as co-sleeping and soft bedding, are linked to higher mortality rates, and Elliott and her team’s project aims to find effective ways to improve safety for sleeping by addressing the issue of co-sleeping and keeping infant sleep spaces clear of blankets or choking hazards such as toys, as well as proper “belly up” placement of snoozing babies.

“As we watched the elders share ancient teachings and knowledge of traditional approaches to keeping babies – the most vulnerable member of the family group – as safe as possible or of keeping the baby in the safest possible place, we started to see how the recommendations from the clinical authorities were already in there,” Elliott said. “The themes were there and were delivered with an authenticity that made the messages stay in place longer than something a mom would read in a brochure.”

Sharing information in a way that it sticks is crucial, Elliott said. While the project is still in its earliest stages, initial anecdotal evidence shows that it’s working. It’s the combination of clinical best-practice information, entwined with native cultural teachings, that is making it “click” for new moms. The overarching goal remains the same as it would be for any group: make sure postnatal mortality numbers improve.

“It’s a matter of understanding where knowledge comes from, where family support comes from and how to use the information in the best way,” she said. “We know culture is important, and that can be used as a method to get it to these groups that were overlooked in the past.”

The deeper connections can provide stories – and we all know how a story can last longer in our memory than a set of instructions, Elliott added.

“Parenting is complicated business, and when it comes to the best approach to making sure an infant is safe, that sort of thing doesn’t always come in a brochure,” she said. “This project is just one of many that will help our health system take steps in addressing overall population health on many fronts. Innovating our approach to education, using cultural resonance, is a facet worthy of further exploration.”

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How storytelling can help save lives

In many Native American populations, the likelihood of babies reaching their first birthday is much lower than the rest of the American population. A new project using Avera research is attempting to change that.

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