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Curing the ailing healthcare system with stories

People seated in circle at Story Cure March 11, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongMethod
The first step toward fixing the healthcare system — which has left 8.7 percent of American residents uninsured — may be storytelling. And tea.

That’s the idea behind Story Cure, an event at the Community Education Center on 35th Street and Lancaster Avenue that took place March 7. It was co-organized by local arts nonprofit Philadelphia Contemporary and Rhode-Island based nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF), which offers strategy, design and capacity services to organizations in the healthcare, education and public service sectors.

Between poems performed by local writer Trapeta Mayson, about 20 attendees shared their experiences in the healthcare system story circles at Story Cure. There was also a group discussion and tea-making workshop offered by PplFood, said Yolanda Wisher, a co-host of the event and the curator of spoken word for Philadelphia Contemporary.

The stories told on Thursday inform BIF’s Personalized Medicine by Design project. The project puts “individual and family health and wellbeing at the center of the [healthcare] model” instead of waiting for people to get sick and then taking action to help them, said Saul Kaplan, BIF’s founder.

“More and more people are being left behind in communities that either can’t afford it, can’t access it or don’t fit into that story,” Kaplan said. “So we think we need to transform, not tweak the healthcare system.”

(Other mission-minded orgs in Philadelphia are using storytelling as a tool for support, too. Read more here.)

The exact structure and implementation of the Personalized Medicine by Design project is still being developed. Kaplan said Story Cure is part of a four-month, story collection phase BIF is conducting across the country.

“The design process really starts with understanding the customer experience, what their pain points are and how we may design a new model or solutions that better the customer,” he added. “It always starts with, ‘Let’s understand the stories of the people we’re trying to serve.'”

"Telling our story is the gateway or the doorway into a larger form of healing that is waiting for us."
Yolanda Wisher

Wisher and Mayson agreed that interacting with the healthcare system is intimidating. As a freelance artist, Wisher said she consistently relies on the system for affordable options for herself and her family.

For Mayson, it’s become clear during her decades-long career as a social worker that the healthcare system favors some, especially those who grew up in households with steady access to health insurance.

Mayson said details as small as the forms patients must fill out in doctor’s waiting rooms show how out of touch the system is with some people’s circumstances — the inspiration for her poem “Health Assessment.” She performed it at the event on Thursday.

“You’re being asked about your family history of diabetes, but what they’re asking you is … ‘Are there any fresh grocery stores in your neighborhood?’” Mayson said. “It’s basically saying these health assessments don’t really dig deeper to go over symptoms or the history of your illness. … I’m kind of looking at more of a societal issue and not just what’s on the form.”

Poems like Mayson’s are a “bridge between a really big abstract topic and a connection to that topic, that human-centered connection,” said Wisher, a poet and the city’s third Poet Laureate in 2016. She added that using spoken word to share her personal experiences has been healing, and it’s a universal medication that doesn’t require a prescription.

“Telling our story is the gateway or the doorway into a larger form of healing that is waiting for us in 2016 on the other side of the story,” Wisher said. “Or it’s just being able to speak the truth about what has happened to you. It’s the beginning of transformation.”

She added that the event this past Thursday night may have been the first time people told their stories up to others, but she hopes Story Cure gives them a space to “feel heard, and I also hope that the stories are rich and inspired and really inform a really authentic model that the Business Innovation Factory will devise.”

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