• By Dana Sparks

Transforming Health Care Through Love and Story

October 1, 2015
Kevin Kling at Transform 2015

Author, playwright and storyteller Kevin Kling speaking at Transform 2015.

In a session called "People Power Health," one speaker at the Transform 2015 Symposium said "stories are medicine" and another said he "was loved back into existence"

“As a storyteller, my dream is to be as valuable as a plumber,” says author, playwright and storyteller Kevin Kling. Kling was one of the presenters in a session called “People Power Health,” the opening session of Transform 2015, which began on Wednesday at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester. And he came armed with enough quips and tales to fill a hospital wing. All aimed at shining a light on the patient’s role in health care.

Along with laughs and memorable moments, Kling and other two other featured speakers in the opening session attempted to inspire different ways of approaching and thinking about people powering health care.

Kling shared stories and insights from his own experiences in health care. “In health care, we’re in a point of transition. We’re becoming more responsible about the outcome of our own story,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Setting the tone – “Health as a condition of citizenship”

Moderator John Hockenberry who has attended by his count 4 or 5 Transform events, set the tone early for the annual gathering of health care thought leaders from around the globe.

“I am so excited about the journey we’re going to take you on over the next couple of days,” said Hockenberry, as he encouraged those attending Transform to get engaged in their own health care. “If we thought of health as a condition of citizenship, would we begin to be able to think in a more improvisational and healthy way about problems in our health care system.”

The Transform conference, hosted by the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, aims to tackle the challenges of transforming the future of health and health care. The Center for Innovation’s team attempts to take new and innovative ideas and rapidly turn them into practical health care solutions. And at least a few of the features of this year’s conference are snapshots of works in progress, such as a pre-conference tour of Mayo’s Well Living Lab and MIT MakerNurse Project.

Hockenberry used his TV journalism background as he showed a video to offer a visual metaphor of the U.S. health care system. In the video, a man places a metal cylinder about the size of a soda can (representing a patient) into a washing machine, and it runs on a spin setting. As the washer proceeded to slowly fall apart, Hockenberry narrated the action.

“The more patients that are involved, the more the system has difficulty, the system keeps working, keeps churning it out,” he said. As the drum dramatically broke out and bounced away, Hockenberry continued. “A health care system that is separate from the idea of health and people’s day to day lives,” he said, “means that people are a problem for the system.”

Hockenberry hammered home the emphasis on engagement by inviting singer-songwriter Jill Sobule on stage. As she strummed guitar and he plucked a banjo, they sang a medical-term tinged version of the Beatles’ song “Come Together” to the amusement of the audience.

Marvin Seppala, M.D. – “I was loved back into existence” 

Marvin Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, focused on the virtues of optimism as an essential ingredient of health innovation.

The Stewartville, Minnesota, native detailed his teenage years of chemical dependency, a failed attempt at sobriety after treatment at Hazelden, and a failure to graduate with his high school class.

His big break came when at the age of 18, he said, when he was hired as a lab technician at Mayo Clinic. It was a scientific and spiritual epiphany. And it inspired him to begin attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “I was loved back into existence, because that’s exactly how it felt,” said Dr. Seppala.

He noted that Hazelden has had to alter its treatment program to respond to an “opioid addiction crisis” in the U.S. And he suggested there’s more to treatment than simply focusing on the drug.  

“In my ideal world, an expression of love would be just as important in a health care professional’s interaction with a patient as their vital signs, as their diagnosis, as their treatment plan,” said Dr. Seppala. “What a change that would be from the current system.”

His emphasis on the value of positive emotions also resonated with Pediatric Occupational Therapist Kaci Rendahl of Rochester. “I think that is a big part of what I do with my patients is definitely the mind, spirit and science combination,” she said. “Having that love component and optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation.”

John Costik – love and health innovation

Love led John Costik down a path of health product innovation, he said.

The lead software developer at the Center for Clinical Innovation at University of Rochester, New York, was working for a supermarket chain three year ago when his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

“What do you do when someone you love needs you?” he asked. “You don’t wait. You do what you can.”

Costik used his engineering background and the assistance of other volunteer engineers to make what they called NightScout software, which creates a cloud connection for continuous glucose monitoring. Their initial project involved the ability to remotely monitor a Dexcom G4 CGM device via smartphones, computers, tablets and the Pebble smartwatch.

While the Food and Drug Administration initially worried about the risks, Costik says Dexcom’s remote monitoring device received FDA approval six months after NightScout was featured in a Wall Street Journal story.

Costik’s message connected with Thinh Tran, M.D., chief medical and quality officer for Baptist Health, South Florida. “It’s really a human approach to health care rather than a more disease approach, so I think this is very inspiring,” Dr. Tran said. “I think as we move forward the health system needs to take lessons, listen more and transform the way we do things better.”

Kevin Kling – “Stories are medicine”

Kevin Kling, the storyteller and the patient, thinks that talking hard truth between patient and doctor is best in the long run.

Kling recalled trying all kinds of surgeries at Mayo Clinic to get his his right arm to work again following a motorcycle crash pull his brachial plexus nerves out of their sockets. Finally, he said, doctors told him they couldn’t do anything further for him.

“I was on cloud 9,” he said of that hard truth. “Finally I could get on with my life.”

Kling believes stories are medicine. “Depending on how and when they’re used, the same story can lead you to a battle or lead you to health,” he said. “It’s time and place. That’s what makes a really good story important.”

He continued with some storytelling advice for caregivers for using stories to connect with and show empathy for their patients. “By telling a story where I’m vulnerable, it doesn’t show that I am vulnerable,” he said. “It shows that I know how it feels, and our conversations can begin.”

That struck a chord with Oriana Beaudet, a nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center. “Kind of poignantly, he reminded us that this is why we’re in health care,” she said.

Transform continues – Here’s how follow along

Transform 2015 continues on Thursday, Oct. 1, and Friday, Oct. 2. Here are some ways to follow along.

  • Follow commentary on Twitter from those attending Transform at #txfm

See the full schedule on the Transform 2015 website.

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