Celebrating MLK Day: Listening to Health Disparities

The entire auditorium was silent as eyes followed the words on the screen and absorbed the image of the patient in a hospital room. These moments of patient narratives were interspersed throughout Dr. Carmen Green’s presentation today (the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech)  at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium organized by the Health Sciences Program at the University of Michigan. People from all across campus, from the schools of medicine, dentistry, public health, pharmacy, etc., had all gathered to learn more about “Unequal Burdens and Unparalleled Opportunities: Achieving the Dream for Health and Pain Care Equity.”

Dr. Green is an accomplished woman, a Professor of Anesthesiology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Health Management Policy. Her passion and interest in addressing health inequalities was incredibly inspiring. Throughout her presentation, she balanced her personal experiences with shocking facts about American health care and disparities in treatment.

In addition, Dr. Green acknowledged the importance of listening and storytelling in health care. She admired “the power of narrative to embrace the art and science of medicine,” to transform it. It was exciting to see her advocate on behalf of this communication through language, because it helped bring to life some of the theories that I have been reading about. She demonstrated that narratives are indeed giving patients a voice, and slowly but surely, more and more physicians are listening.

Her take-home message about narratives was that “we need to be able to listen actively, not passively.” This distinction stands up agains the common practice of failing to be engaged in conversation with patients. This means to pay close attention to the patient as a whole, the patient’s body language, the patient’s disposition, the patient’s praises, the patient’s complaints. Not only hearing everything that a patient says, but also responding to the patient. Failure to do so undermines the patient (this reminded me of Oliver Sacks’  A Leg to Stand On, which I haven’t read yet but Frank’s novel makes me feel as though I have). Particularly in regards to addressing pain inequity, I think that understanding and reacting to narratives is crucial, and Dr. Green’s placement of narratives throughout her talk suggests that she agrees.

Dr. Green’s talk concluded powerfully with her own dreams for what the future will hold 50 years from now, in 2063. She remains optimistic about our future: “Our strength is in our diversity and in our ability to see through multiple lenses.”

To see through multiple lenses, to hear through multiple narratives.

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