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Thought Leadership | 19th January 2024

The Galvanising Effect of Mr Bates vs the Post Office: Why Healthcare Communications Should Prioritise Human Stories

Read Time: 3 minutes
Alex Gandhi, Associate Director at Onyx Health By Alex Gandhi, Associate Director at Onyx Health 


Despite more than 20 years of investigations, campaigning and news coverage – including a Panorama documentary – it was an ITV drama broadcast over just four days that finally brought the Post Office-Horizon IT scandal the attention it deserved.

Since it initially aired in January, Mr Bates vs the Post Office has been streamed 16.6 million times (and counting). It has also dominated UK politics in the last fortnight, being described by British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, as “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in UK history”.

So, what’s happened to put this at the forefront of politics and public minds – and, most importantly, what can we learn from it?

The ITV drama serves as a poignant reminder of the power of storytelling, particularly when people are placed at the heart of the narrative. In the case of Mr Bates, the drama brought home to viewers the emotive human consequences of the saga and their protracted fight to be heard and believed. It is this that has prompted such strong public reaction.

As a healthcare communicator, the principle of storytelling is applied to telling patients’ lived experiences. In recent years, this has become our cornerstone in effectively connecting with a diverse range of healthcare groups. The dramatisation of the Post Office-Horizon IT scandal demonstrates the importance of not forgetting those at the heart of the issue that you are trying to solve.

How do we apply this when it comes to communicating healthcare messages?

Fostering empathy and connection: the emphasis on storytelling is pivotal for humanising the clinical. By sharing authentic patient stories, communicators can evoke empathy, fostering connections among patients, healthcare professionals, policymakers and the wider community 

  • Making complex information accessible: storytelling serves as a crucial tool for simplifying complex medical information. Whether explaining new treatments, medical research or disease intricacies, narratives break down barriers, ensuring accessibility for a diverse audience with varying levels of health literacy 
  • Enhancing memorability: the power of storytelling lies in its ability to create lasting impressions. Unlike statistics, narratives increase the likelihood that the audience will remember and internalise key healthcare messages 
  • Driving behavioural change: beyond imparting knowledge, effective healthcare communication seeks to inspire action. Stories, by illustrating real-life consequences and outcomes, become a persuasive tool for motivating behavioural change 
  • Building trust and credibility: trust is key; stories, especially those rooted in genuine experiences, demonstrate transparency and authenticity 
  • Adapting to diverse audiences: healthcare communications must reach a diverse audience with varying backgrounds. Storytelling proves to be a versatile tool that can be tailored to resonate with different demographics. Crafting narratives that speak to unique community experiences ensures inclusivity and relevance in healthcare messaging 

There are also strong parallels to draw on from the renewed political response, following the ITV drama, with recognition that even when speaking to professional audiences such as healthcare professionals and payers, the most effective way to resonate with them is through the lens of genuine human stories – to humanise, empathise and create a narrative that fosters understanding, empathy, empowerment and action.

While not all healthcare messages or campaigns require a dramatisation to cut through the noise, the UK contaminated blood scandal – in which tens of thousands of men, women and children were infected with HIV and hepatitis after being treated by the NHS with infected blood and infected blood products between 1970 and 1991 – comes to mind as a health story that could be told in this way.

Certainly, there exists an appropriate time and context for adopting a corporate tone, conveying data and using technical language. And let’s face it, I am not about to become a documentary director or screenwriter anytime soon. However, as healthcare communicators, we must embrace the art of storytelling. This approach serves to humanise healthcare, making it more relatable and accessible to a broader audience.

The Mr Bates vs the Post Office phenomenon places personal lived experience front and centre, as a fundamental strategy for effective engagement and understanding, and as a catalyst for action. It is a shift towards a more compassionate, connected and ultimately more effective healthcare communication paradigm – one that ensures patients are not just recipients of care, but active participants in a shared narrative.


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