Editor's note: Greg Chu is principal at KMK Consulting Inc., a Morristown, N.J., research firm.

We all appreciate a good story. As researchers, however, we sometimes overlook the power of narrative in exploring one of the most basic topics in health care market research – the patient journey. When we rush to impose prefabricated schema on the patient’s encounter with illness, we can miss the explanatory arc that emerges from the story that the patient tells about his or her own journey – a story that breathes life into the otherwise dry itemization of events which punctuate the patient experience. “What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens,” wrote the novelist Rabih Alameddine. “Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

Those who wish to tap into the power of stories can draw from a rich and interdisciplinary body of theory. Sociology, psychology, philosophy and literary criticism have all contributed to the mining of insights from patient narratives. Unfortunately, much of the academic literature provides little practical guidance for how the market researcher can apply narrative theory or make it relevant in a commercial setting. In this article, we provide an overview of how a narrative analytic approach can be utilized to add value in qualitative patient journey research.

The backbone of the traditional patient journey is a chronologically-ordered series of events and actions that spans the patient’s experience of illness. The scope of the journey may be narrowly defined as beginning with diagnosis and ending with treatment or cure but may expand to encompass the patient’s life prior to the onset of illness and project beyond the present to an anticipated future state. Most commonly, understanding of the journey is derived through individual depth interviews, beginning with the patient but often including additional actor...