At the inaugural “What’s the Fix” conference this summer, I asked attendees to take one simple action: Write down one thing that you can do to make healthcare better for patients.
It was simplistic by design: We wanted to force people to think about their own stories, their own relationship with the healthcare system, and figure out a conversation they could have, a question they could ask, an introduction they could make – that would help connect the dots between the healthcare system we have and the system we ought to have.
My commitment was pretty straightforward: In my day to day work, I committed to exploring the use of people’s stories, and the craft of storytelling more broadly, to bring about the changes that we need so badly in healthcare. As part of that commitment, here’s my story:
Mr. Rao Goes to Washington (redux)
I moved to DC almost exactly a year ago, on Halloween day. A week later, a presidential election took the world by tweetstorm, and the rest is history. Over the course of this year, the new administration’s impacts to healthcare (and every other sector) have been dramatic and unclear at the same time.
Don’t worry, that’s not what this story is about. I have been as shellshocked as everyone else. But through the protests, rallies, and steady emergence of this strange alternative political reality we now seem to be living in, I’ve started to make sense of it all – to feel like I’ve come full circle.
That’s because I have.
This is my second time here – I first moved to Washington DC in the summer of 2008, fresh out of a graduate program in public health. I didn’t fully understand the terms “financial crisis” and “global recession,” but I knew they meant I couldn’t afford to be too picky in my job search.
I quickly found a role as a data analyst at a small firm that worked with integrated health systems around the US. I settled into the DC grind, working long hours, exploring monuments and museums on weekends, and joining the rest of the city in welcoming a new President to town later that winter.
Mr. Obama wasted no time, signing a landmark stimulus bill into law in 2009 that included over $30B in incentives for healthcare industry to transition to electronic records. Outside of work, I enrolled in a part-time certificate program in health IT policy and started writing and tweeting, which led to the first of many freelance gigs and eventual escape from the cubicle.
Just as I was getting my bearings, the White House enacted the Affordable Care Act, another historic bill that fundamentally rewrote the basic tenets of US healthcare payment and care delivery. My head was really spinning now – full of new acronyms and opportunities. As I completed the certificate and hit the three-year mark in DC, I decided to bring my daydreams to the fore, and I quit my job to vagabond around the world for the rest of the year.
Lone Star to the Bay State
After traveling to my heart’s content (Japan, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Panama) I wound up in Austin, Texas in early 2012 with nothing but a car full of stuff and a freelance writing contract in hand. A few months of sunshine and many breakfast tacos later, I decided to make Austin home, accepting a full time position in health IT strategy at a non-profit cancer advocacy group with a complicated story of its own.
While precision medicine and big data were the topics du jour in those days, it was the simple stories shared by countless cancer survivors that drove the agenda – stories about basic gaps in care and planning that had led to avoidable sterilizations, preventable deaths, and needless suffering for entire families. Outside of work, Austin’s burgeoning health tech community of designers, startups, and a newly planned medical school showed me the differences between federal, state, and city level innovation.
I soon developed a clear, public/private sector research agenda for patient-centered health IT systems, and by the time I left the foundation, a freelance market analyst role happened to open up. I found myself writing about consumerism, access, and patient experience while attempting to navigate the individual market as a self-insured beneficiary.
By 2015, family drew me back up to Boston. While I was enjoying a life of writing, networking, and conference hopping, I began to feel that either the thriving healthcare innovation enterprise wasn’t working as promised, or my work wasn’t making much of an impact on anything important. Either way, the cynicism of being an analyst had caught up to me. I’d bounced around so much already – How could I hope to find my dream job, one that combined advocacy and storytelling with research and strategy?
Eventually, I stopped worrying and started building. Last year, I founded my company, Patchwise Labs, as a sandbox to explore relevant topics and techniques related to the innovation of patient care.
I was lucky to land a few early gigs that kept me going, but Healthsparq was the first client that made me feel like I was onto something: We built a humor-driven campaign to spoof the many stories of frustration that arise when we try to use healthcare as consumers. As I moved back to DC, storytelling remained at the core of our partnership as it evolved into the #WTFix conference, which was built to shine a spotlight on patient stories that are equal parts determination and innovation.
Commit to Your Story
Which brings us back to the commitments activity: If there’s one thread that’s run through all of the chapters of my career thus far, it’s simple: Stories are paramount to driving change, on any and every level. At a time when politicians aren’t afraid to rewrite the rules as they see fit, why can’t we do the same in our own conversations and work projects?
Whether it’s an example on a campaign trail or a fundraiser, in a sales meeting or at a networking meetup, stories help add context and meaning to our work. And in our hyper-paced times, it’s too easy to forget all of our own valuable experiences and memories – or to tune out the stories of the people in our lives who have a healthcare experience to share – anecdotes of fear, anger, frustration, or even elation, wonder, and excitement.
Are you using your own story for maximum impact? What are the people, places, and organizations that have shaped your career in this industry? What’s a story that impacts you deeply, powerfully? What’s one small action you can take today– whether that’s sending an e-mail, or posting something on social media, or writing down an idea on the back of a napkin?
T1. Naveen’s commitment at #WTFix was about using storytelling to drive change. What are your favorite stories that touch on health and well-being?
T2. What was your #WTFix commitment to changing healthcare, and how is it going? If you didn’t make one, do it – do it now! (Schwarzenegger voice)
T3. Which groups or individuals can you partner and collaborate with to turn your commitment into reality, and how?
T4. What is one thing you wish a company or the healthcare system or the government would commit to changing?