Thursday, November 15, 2012

Medstartr: Where The "Crazies" Are

Entrepreneurs in general are known to share five “C” traits: Commitment, Confidence, Creativity, Courage and Collaboration.

But in medical entrepreneurship, the other “C” might be for "Crazy". There are so many disconnects, agendas, and bureaucracies in health care, you'd have to be nuts to go there, right? But  when an unfortunate medical event hits home, you're driven by the crazy notion you can make it better for patients. 

Look at some of the folks posting projects on, a brand new crowd funding platform where medical entrepreneurs pitch for funding from the world at large:
  •  Regina Holliday, young art teacher and mother of two who lost her husband to kidney cancer. She was frustrated at the pace of government efforts to include patient voices in policy-making. Within a couple of months she’d crowd-funded the first-ever national conference on partnering with patients. It took place in Kansas City within three months of the project’s posting.
  •  Two sisters who lost their mom to breast cancer and got mastectomies (after learning they had the breast cancer gene too) couldn’t find a bra that fit their newly reconstructed bodies. So they’re creating one that makes them feel as comfortable as any dual-breasted woman.
  •  Me. After losing my father in the hospital to complications of a C.diff infection, and seeing how unprepared and ill-equipped patients are to engage in their care and help keep themselves safe from infection, I created a “portable patient advocate” that clips on the bed rail called a Patient Pod. My hope is to get them in the hands of patients sooner rather than later.

As Florence Nightingale said, “Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.” Who would have thought  I'd wake up every day thinking along the same lines as Florence Nightingale? But the truth is, when you have a devastating personal experience, you can't help but imagine the next person walking in your shoes, and want that person to feel comforted, safe and in control when you or your loved one did not.

Ken Schwartz learned this. He was a lawyer working in health care. forty years old and married with a young son when he got devastating news out of the blue: advanced lung cancer. He’d smoked an occasional cigarette in college and law school, but he had been living a smoke-free, healthy lifestyle since then. As he wrote in the Boston Globe, early on in the diagnosis and treatment process:

 …the nurse was cool and brusque, as if I were just another faceless patient. But once the interview began, and I told her that I had just learned that I probably had advanced lung cancer, she softened, took my hand, and asked how I was doing. We talked about my two-year-old son, Ben, and she mentioned that her nephew was named Ben. By the end of our conversation, she was wiping tears from her eyes and saying that while she normally was not on the surgical floor, she would come see me before the surgery. Sure enough, the following day, while I was waiting to be wheeled into surgery, she came by, held my hand, and, with moist eyes, wished me luck…

Ken Schwartz
      This small gesture was powerful; my apprehension gave way to a much-needed moment of calm. Looking back, I realize that in a high-volume setting, the high-pressure atmosphere tends to stifle a caregiver’s inherent compassion and humanity. But the briefest pause in the frenetic pace can bring out the best in a caregiver, and do much for a terrified patient…I cannot emphasize enough how meaningful it was to me when caregivers revealed something about themselves that made a personal connection to my plight. It made me feel much less lonely. The rulebooks, I’m sure, frown on such intimate engagement between caregiver and patient. But maybe it’s time to rewrite them.[i]

Ken Schwartz died of lung cancer less than a year after his diagnosis. But his legacy lives on in the foundation he started shortly before his death, the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dedicated to strengthening the relationships between patients and caregivers, it also stands as a poignant testament to the power of the human touch, and human kindness, in affirming our basic humanity.

The projects on above reflect and affirm this basic humanity. Others you'll find there--IT solutions and technologies, for instance-- also serve this goal. We can’t ensure a nurse is always there to comfort us, or a physician has the time to really listen, but solutions that carve out cost efficiencies, inform patients, cut wait times, and make critical information easier to find just might free up more bandwidth for our providers to focus more on the human needs of the person in front of them. That could do a lot to reduce a patient’s apprehension, uncertainty and fear.

Florence Nightingale would certainly approve. And if  Medstartr projects had existed in her day, she’d probably find a way to fund them. 

[i] Ken Schwartz, “A Patient’s Story” Boston Globe Magazine, July 16, 1995.

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