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My last blog was on how today’s medical system fails by not addressing the real needs of our patients and their communities. Here, I highlight three projects that take such an “upstream” approach to healthcare:

Doctors can give prescriptions for medications, but why not a prescription for healthy foods and safer housing? Health Leads employs young people (usually college graduates interested in careers in health) to be advocates who assist doctors in clinics and ERs in connecting patients with community resources. They help with everything from food assistance to job training to legal counseling. They help to “fill” the other prescriptions that people need to achieve better health.

Recognizing that black males have significant health disparities and that outreach and education must start in the community, Project Brotherhood was conceived from a simple idea: give patients free haircuts, and use barber shops as a place to screen and counsel on illnesses such as high blood pressure and STI prevention. Its model of multidisciplinary, culturally competent care incorporates other aspects of social support, including on fatherhood and job support.

 The New York Times just published a story about an “EMS Corps” in East Oakland that specifically recruits at-risk youth and train them to be emergency medical technicians. They provide mentorship for young men who come from backgrounds of poverty and violence, and train them to become professionals who will serve their communities. As the story cites, these men are taught that they aren’t the problem—they are the solution.

These are only some of the some of the many innovations occurring around the country. We need far more interventions that go beyond “band aid” care. In the words of public health doctor Rishi Manchanda (whose recent TED talk I highly recommend), we must change our entire approach to healthcare, away from simply treating the effects of illnesses to targeting interventions to where people live, work, and play—where health really begins.

I am delighted to host a guest blog by writer and narrative medicine specialist Annie Robinson, who describes her journey with storytelling.

On a warm June afternoon, clustered around picnic tables, cradled in the mountains of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, eight medical students from around the world began telling one another their stories. They were among approximately 40 students invited to participate in a weeklong intensive program run by AMSA for medical students interested in integrative medicine called LEAPS. As a graduate student of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I was asked to help facilitate the program.

Over iced tea and dark chocolate, they spoke of heartbreak and grief and divorce, of exam-stress and isolation and fear. They also shared brilliant visions of innovative approaches to medical care, and their aspirations to foster intimate relationships with their fellow medical students, their families and friends, and their patients. I listened with rapt attention as they described how, from personal struggles, conviction and vision were born for their careers as caregivers. I shivered, on that muggy summer day, knowing I was in the presence of my tribe. 

I was raised to revere the power of storytelling, which has been a critical component in how I have navigated my way through the world. It proved particularly useful when I entered the healthcare system in my early adolescence. I have spent over half of my life now as a patient, grappling with illnesses and issues of embodiment. In large part, it has been by speaking my struggles aloud that I have been able to heal. Telling my stories has allowed me to harness the power of the dark times to create connections and attain insight. 

As I sat there at LEAPS, witnessing medical students experiencing what I myself had experienced time and again–that relationships and wisdom come from baring one’s soul – I began to envision a way to enable more students to engage in this powerful narrative process. The seeds for my oral narratives podcast project Inside Stories: Medical Student Experiences were planted. I wanted to hear more student stories about the path to medicine, about struggles and triumphs, roadblocks and dreams. Through sharing over the course of that week, the students gained clarity and catharsis, and many remain in touch to this day. 

Inside Stories emerged from those conversations with LEAPS students. The idea was to develop a podcast platform that would enable medical students anywhere to both voice and listen to stories about medical student experience. Inside Stories’ mission is “to provide a means of personal healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories, as well as to cultivate community among students in the often isolating medical school environment.” The interview process involves recording stories from current medical students, remotely or in-person. Recruitment has been done via word-of-mouth, social media platforms, and at medical humanities conferences. Student participants comprise a diverse demographic of men and women from all four years of medical school, of various races and nationalities, interested in medical fields ranging from OB/GYN to pediatrics to gastroenterology and many more. 

The topics addressed are vast. Hannah spoke about the challenges of navigating in medical school while being a mother. Petra reflected on how her spiritual path informs the challenges being a medical student. Katie discussed the encouragement she gained from finding her mentor. Leah shared how writing poetry aided her personal healing. Samar described how self-care practices helped her get through school. Angie talked about how her Syrian heritage drove her motivation to become a physician. Hieu shared his experiences as a community health worker in Uganda propelled his motivation to combat structural violence. Carlton described his motivation to pursue medicine in the South, to offer the African-American community a provider with whom they can identify.
To date, over 40 students have participated in the project. One participant reflected: “At first I was intimidated at the prospect of sharing my deepest feelings to a public audience, especially because I had never verbalized these feelings and in general I am a very private person. Ultimately, I'm glad I committed myself to this project and am proud to have my message out in the open.” Another described how sharing felt validating: “It made it seem real - everything that I had been through.”

I hope that by listening to the accounts of the courageous, insightful students whose stories constitute this project, others will follow suit and be inspired to share the personal stories at the heart of their journeys through the world of medicine.

If you or someone you know might be interested in telling their story about their experience in medical school, or if you have further questions about Inside Stories, please contact Annie and visit this website and on Twitter @Inside_Stories.