September 14, 2011

Rebecca Onie runs Health Leads (formerly known as Project Health, as she refers to in this video, shot when she won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009).

Based on the insight of one Dr Jack Geiger, who prescribed food for patients suffering from malnutrition, Onie started her own version of that initiative in 1996. As she told the audience at Mayo Clinic’s Transform conference, she’d been working in a Boston hospital when she realized that the staff there were operating a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. They were doing their best for their patients in the short time they got to see them, but the real problems were often social, not medical. Health Leads allows doctors to write prescriptions for unmet needs such as housing, food, or heating, forms that patients then take to the Health Leads desk at the clinic in order to work with staff to get the needs filled. 1000 volunteers currently work with nearly 10,000 patients on the east coast.¬†

At Transform, Onie was clear that for her, this work isn’t about being glamorous or high profile; it’s about getting stuff done. “There’s no systematic transformative change without the grueling and sometimes incredibly tedious work of getting things done,” she said. Her entire approach to Health Leads has been about rolling up her sleeves and getting on and trying to make an impact. “We’re looking to change the experience of delivery and healthcare,” she said, outlining the big challenge as she sees it: “How do we ensure that these innovations in fact yield transformation?”

At one point, Onie told a story of a creative clinic director figuring out that in order to get people to pay attention to the Health Leads prescription sheets internally, they should pin them directly to billing notices. I commented that this was a great example of the importance of finding a champion for innovation, for discovering someone willing to take a chance, to do something different and to make change happen organically. Onie agreed, and then added that she wants to push this even further. For her, it’s not merely a question of finding champions, but educating and nurturing them. That, she said, is why Health Leads specifically targets undergraduate college students as its volunteers. This way, by the time the graduates enter the professional workforce, they’ll have been steeped in the social ideas of the program, and be more willing and able to continue to push for systemic change throughout their careers. It’s the slow and steady approach to radical transformation.

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