“Storytelling can help women to know what best practice looks like – and empower them to demand it. It’s probably the most effective tool we have to reach people with new ideas and information.”

Sandra is the Founding Director of the Global Medical Center for Social Impact at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, leading social change through storytelling and entertainment.

You worked in family planning and reproductive health in low-resource countries for more than 20 years. Was surgery an important aspect?

I remember that over 80% of admissions were obstetric and gynaecology. Women are absolutely the majority coming in through the emergency rooms for emergency surgery, and it’s a multiple crisis when a woman in a low-resource country loses her health and her wellbeing.

Oftentimes the father doesn’t have the will or the wherewithal to raise a family. Her life is on the line, but so is theirs.

When I was 19 I moved to northeast Brazil, to a very small fishing village. There was a family across the road with nine children, the mother pregnant with her tenth. She died in childbirth. And those children – they became orphans.

The Global Media Center for Social Impact raises awareness and action for health issues through storytelling. How can narrative help women in need of safe surgery?

Storytelling can help women to know what best practice looks like – and empower them to demand it. It’s probably the most effective tool we have to reach people with new ideas and information.

People have to care – you have to entertain, engage and empower, in that order.

But everything from intention to action can change when we’re transported by a story.

And it’s not about story v statistics in my experience. Once writers are inspired on a topic they often incorporate statistics into storylines, so that people never actually realize they’re learning something.

Surgical safety sounds like a dry concept. How could storytelling bring it alive?

It already has! A few years ago when the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist was being launched, I took Atul Gawande as an expert on surgical safety to speak with a couple of TV show executives here in Hollywood. And I asked him, on the way over, to start with a story.

He took a case study from medical literature – a complex case about all the really important and timely steps that were taken to save a child’s life, and won our full attention. We cared deeply about this little 3-year old girl who had drowned, and her parents – we lost our bearings and arrived in a new world. And once we were there, we were so open to learning.

Did it translate to television?

When Atul bought the Surgical Safety Checklist into the story it was so interesting to us. The creator of the TV show ER ended up writing a storyline about how it saves the life of a beloved character, and the audience really cared.

It aired on a Thursday night and Friday morning at 6 a.m., surgeons were being gathered together to watch the episode. Many were so moved they ended up adopting the Checklist for their own practice; patients were coming in and asking if they used the Checklist before surgery; it actually bought global attention to the issue.

What is the long-term impact?

It’s so interesting – you have art imitating life and life imitating art, bringing it into popular culture where it becomes more widely accepted. The stories can strike how you create the future.

There are so many challenges to safe surgery, particularly in low-resource settings where you don’t have equipment to sterilize instruments, or disposal for surgical waste. We can help to create demand for safe surgical practice if we show what a healthy cycle looks like, and inspire women and me around the world to demand it.