Three Labs and Many Moments of Inspiration

By Flip the Clinic

Flip the Clinic threw three—count ‘em three—events the week of September 7th. On Tuesday, we brainstormed opportunities for change in New Jersey at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. On Wednesday, we held an all-day Lab at with participants at the D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton. And on Thursday, we set up shop in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

There are a dozen incredible stories to share—and we plan to roll them over the next few weeks, stay tuned!—but I’d like to draw attention to a small but important moment of Flipped perspective, one of many revelations that occurs as a result of the Lab process. It started with a walk.

For 30 minutes during Flip the Clinic Labs, attendees are encouraged to pair up, stroll outside, and talk through their ideas. One conversation kicked off with a compliment: a doctor telling a Flip the Clinic staff member that she looked healthy. How peculiar. Healthy? The pair realized how rare it is for a patient to hear what they’re doing right from their clinician. Why? Because patients go to the clinic to find out what’s wrong with them. As soon as a clinician meets with a patient, the goal is to “solve” the patient’s health problem. Over time, clinicians can start to see the patient as ‘the one with heartburn’ or ‘the one with a nervous tick.’ For patients, diagnoses can start to feel like they define us, as if acid reflux is one of our core attributes.

Lab attendees all over the country have raised this as a “pinch point” in the system—that they’d like to be seen as a whole person and not just a patient. In Princeton, the pair came to the same powerful conclusion. Patients are people; they’re hikers and baseball players and knitting obsessives; they’re parents and friends and children. A person’s condition is just one slice of a whole life. But what do you do with that knowledge?

As they hit the halfway point of their walk, the doctor made a striking comparison. She has regular joint pain. The treatment for her pain is to strengthen the muscles around the region, not the source of pain itself.

And then there it was.

When we Flip our focus from zeroing in on a ‘problem,’ to strengthening and enriching all the other things that make up a life, we create a better and more joy-filled support system for promoting health.

The physician gave a personal example of how this might work. She remembered how she used to pride herself on being a problem solver. When there was something not-quite-right, she’d take action, diving in to fix it. But when she became a parent, and she realized that sometimes going straight for a problem only made it bigger.

Imagine your son comes home from school and reports a disagreement with a teacher. Marching into the teacher’s classroom to demand an explanation can turn this small source of friction into a much larger problem.

The physician’s current philosophy is to direct her energy into what makes her son happiest (baseball, for instance). When supported by a team of friends and a sport he loves, that disagreement with a teacher becomes a moment in passing rather than a week-long conflict. It’s one person having a bad day instead of a sustained problem. By supporting and strengthening the parts of her son’s life that makes him happiest, everyone benefits.

The patient/Flip the Clinic staff member immediately applied the conversation to her own neck pain. The summer had been stressful. When the waves of anxiety got too big, her neck would ache something fierce. Her solution had been to attack the problem, as if it were another thing on her to-do list. She’d go to yoga, sleep on her back instead of her side, she’d remember to stretch regularly. But these solutions only temporarily mitigated a recurring problem. They missed the whole, or the part of the patient that loves to go running and lives for the smell of trees. What abates the stress that causes the neck pain? Regular time outside, visiting with friends, and weekend calls with parents—all of which had fallen aside during the busy work period.

This moment of Flipped perspective was revelatory for the two Lab participants.

In the clinic, the physician plans to bring her patients outside lives in, if only to remind them that she cares, and a diagnosis isn’t everything. It’s just one slice of the pie. And her walking partner will remember this stroll. The smell of hot grass and dry trees. That praying mantis on the path with its arms in the air, as if celebrating the breakthrough. She’ll hold on to this and all the other good things until…neck pain? What neck pain?