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Clinic waiting room in Harlem becomes experiment in humanizing medicine

(Reuters Health) - Brightly-colored artwork by patients adorns the walls of the waiting room at a small community healthcare center in New York City, the result of a project by two young doctors on a mission to humanize medicine.

FILE PHOTO: A self-portrait of a pediatric patient displayed on the wall of a medical clinic's waiting room is seen in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, U.S. March 7, 2019. Courtesy of Anoushka Sinha/Handout via REUTERS.

The two, who met in medical school, felt the decor of the waiting room at the Charles B. Rangel Community Health Center in Harlem did not reflect the identities and experiences of the patients it serves, who are mainly low-income African-American and Hispanic families dependent on Medicaid for healthcare costs.

They settled on a simple plan to transform the room. Over the course of several weeks, they provided 50 young patients in the waiting room, ages 5 to 21, with art supplies and invited them to write or draw in response to the prompt, “How do you see yourself?”

“We thought it would be really meaningful to get patients to use the untapped time they spend in a waiting room constructively and in a way that would leave a physical impression, shaping the space that represents a medical home for their community,” Dr. Anoushka Sinha of Columbia University told Reuters Health by phone.

Writing in the journal Pediatrics, Sinha and Dr. Natalie Diacovo, both now residents in pediatrics training programs, say the experiment began as a “narrative medicine” project for an assignment during medical school at Columbia.

“Narrative medicine is about reading a patient the way you would read a poem,” Sinha explained.

Sinha and Diacovo said patients became engrossed in the activity and collaborated with each other, sometimes returning after their appointment to finish their artwork.

Children younger than five volunteered themselves as “helpers,” fetching crayons and picking colors for the older patients.

One physician at the health center noted a shift in patients’ behavior after they participated in the project, including an increased willingness to open up during the visit, the authors added.

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“We wanted to do something that could significantly improve the patient experience and sort of bring medicine back to a more humanistic place. I think it can be a little cold and scientific sometimes,” Diacovo, now at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in a phone interview.

The project’s impact was not limited to patients. Diacovo described the heartening messages and artwork patients made to express gratitude for the medical staff at Rangel.

“It makes us happier to do our jobs to know that we’re having some sort of impact on our patients,” she said.

Michael Vitez, Director of Narrative Medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, told Reuters Health, “I love the simplicity and creativity of this idea. It is such a small gesture but can give meaning to the patient, to the family, to the clinician.”

Vitez believes medical schools are increasingly recognizing that burnout and isolation among health care providers is impacting patients and, as a result, they are prioritizing ways to help clinicians and staff connect better with the people they care for.

“I think more medical schools and more doctors are searching for ways to give patients and clinicians more voice,” he said.

Sinha and Diacovo hope their project will be widely adopted.

“It was really cheap and really not time intensive,” Sinha said. “I can’t imagine that costs would be an issue for any clinic being able to do this,” she added.

Vitez agrees: “I see little reason why the Rangel project can’t be recreated in other similar venues and waiting rooms.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online December 12, 2019.