The Star Thrower, or How Healthcare Looks to Consumers


It is always interesting how events find ways of connecting themselves together even when they seem so unrelated.

I was at my sister Alexis’ graduation from law school on Friday, where I had gone directly from leaving a several day event organized by Health Evolution Partners. At the event I had occasion to meet with Dr. Charlotte Yeh, Chief Medical Officer of AARP, who will shortly be participating in a very cool panel at the conference I am chairing, the Consumer Health & Wellness Innovation Summit, on June 11 in San Francisco (yes, that was a shameless plug; please attend and use code CHAIRVIP for a big discount).

Anyway, Charlotte and I had been talking about the substance of the panel we will be doing together and I was telling her that what I want most from it is the true voice of the consumer. I told her that I go to too many conferences where we all talk about consumers but no one actually speaks from that point of view. That is why I wanted her, John Santa from Consumer Reports and consumer advocate and Director of the Institute for Sexual Medicine, Kim Whittemore, to be there to represent. “Can you imagine?” I said,  “Actual consumers talking about consumers at a consumer health conference? Go figure. It will be a nice refreshing change from everyone else in the healthcare system talking about how consumers feel about changes in the healthcare system.”

So the next day when I was sitting at the graduation ceremony, having left the healthcare world behind for a day, or so I thought, I was pulled right back to the consumer health topic by one of the graduation speaker’s allegories. He told a story adapted from the essay called  “The Star Thrower” (or “starfish story”) written by Loren Eiseley. As I sat there listening, the story gave me a total epiphany about how to describe the difference in views between how the healthcare “system” talks about consumers (aka patients), and how consumers themselves actually feel when trying to get taken care of within the healthcare system. Here is a somewhat updated version of the excerpt from “The Star Thrower” that reflects the story told at the graduation (the original version has two men in it and is somewhat less hopeful, but this version has become the “go to” storytellers’ friend):

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”

But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves,
saying, “It made a difference for that one.”

Wow, that says it all, right? We healthcare people talk in categories and trends. We talk about how all consumers should be treated and how we will deliver products and services for the masses. We design systems that are supposed to work for all, or at least most, and we talk about the few for whom those systems won’t work as the exceptions. But in reality, consumers (and I know this because at times I am one, just as we all are) don’t think of engagement with the healthcare system at all. Consumers are there to get their own singular needs met and could not really care less about whether they are the masses or the exception, only that they get good care and have their voice heard and feel better after the experience.

I think the main reason these two stories—“The Star Thrower” and the consumer experience—connected for me was because of the stories that Charlotte and I were sharing as we sat on the cliff overlooking the beach at Laguna Niguel (rough duty…not). We were sharing stories of “one off” consumer experiences that defied the “norms” but which clearly typified my point above.

I told Charlotte a story that had been relayed to me years ago by Dr. Rick Chung, who used to be the Chief Medical Officer at the behavioral health company I worked at before Psilos. In that true story, a seriously mentally ill patient who lived at home kept calling into our clinical office acting erratic because he thought there were bugs crawling all over … Next Page »

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Lisa Suennen is a managing director with GE Ventures and former managing member of the Psilos Group, as well as the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? and author of the blog Venture Valkyrie. Follow @venturevalkyrie

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