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Doctors take to the streets to learn from patients

Doctor Vikas Saini (left) and Aaron Stupple wrote down the health care stories that they heard from passersby.
Doctor Vikas Saini (left) and Aaron Stupple wrote down the health care stories that they heard from passersby.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Hae Kyung Chung encountered a surprising sight on Boston Common the other day: two guys in white coats, holding notepads, regaling passersby.

“We’re collecting stories about health care,” Dr. Aaron Stupple called out to each person walking the diagonal path to the State House.

Chung stopped. The embroidered titles on the pair’s coats confirmed they were real doctors: Stupple, hospital medicine, and Vikas Saini, cardiology.

“I felt like I might as well make use of their time,” Chung said, noting that a typical medical visit leaves little time for chitchat. She told Saini about a recent frustrating encounter with the health care system. He scribbled notes.

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And so Chung joined the dozens of people contributing to an unusual project: a series of “listening booths” sponsored by the Lown Institute, a Brookline nonprofit that wants to transform health care — and that this week sought impromptu input from those who know it best: patients.

Saini, the Lown Institute’s president, and Stupple, a young activist with the group, took their mobile complaint department to Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, and several Boston neighborhoods.

Patients gave only their first names, and their comments were taken by hand, not recorded. The results will be compiled to inform the institute’s future actions.

Saini described the effort as “a fact-finding mission.”

“It’s not scientific,” he said. “It’s to get a sense of, experientially, what people are going through.”

Although described as a “booth,” Wednesday’s enterprise on the Common was decidedly minimalist: two folding chairs and a poster board positioned in the open air, avoiding any barriers to the public on a mild day.

Several people stepped up. One told of an elderly relative whose doctor pushed him to undergo an unwanted and ultimately fatal procedure. Another said her father couldn’t afford his medication.

Betsy Powers complained that her primary care doctors keep leaving, with several setting up high-priced “concierge” practices. She barely knows her current doctor, her seventh. Powers, a 57-year-old decorator who lives in Wellesley, said she’s healthy, but the turnover in physicians is disconcerting. “Internists aren’t getting enough money,” she said.

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Dr. Aaron Stupple spoke with Betsy Powers of Wellesley.
Dr. Aaron Stupple spoke with Betsy Powers of Wellesley.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Chung, who is 50 and lives in Cambridge, is a home health physical therapist who works in the health care system but rarely uses it. A recent encounter, however, left her yearning for the simplicity of the single-payer system she enjoyed while living in Spain years ago.

After a visit to an urgent care center, Chung was advised to see a specialist. But the center’s referral got lost in its computer system. Her calls to the urgent care center were routed to a call center in Texas. When she finally got an appointment, it was with a gastroenterologist — but Chung needed a gynecologist. She’s still waiting to see the right doctor.

“Everyone needs an advocate, it seems,” Chung said.

Still, among the hundred or so people who had answered questions by midweek, many had good things to say about health care in Massachusetts.

“It’s much more positive than we were expecting,” said Stupple, who had the week off from his job caring for patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham.

The listening booths were Stupple’s idea. “The trouble with health care is an absence of listening,” he said. “If we don’t have time to listen, everything that comes after that is likely to be wrong.”

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Additionally, Stupple said, the Lown Institute hopes to recruit the public to advance its goals of promoting health care focused on patients, based on science, and free of the “more is better” philosophy. The institute was founded in 2012 by Dr. Bernard Lown, a renowned cardiologist who co-founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

The listening booths were among the activities held around the country during the institute’s RightCare Action Week, including discussion groups among physicians, pledges to limit antibiotic use in children, and “overuse counts,” in which doctors documented the unnecessary tests and procedures at their facilities.

Saini said the next phase of health care improvement “has to focus on the delivery itself, the experience of care. How does it feel to be taken care of? Are you in an assembly line? Are you being listened to? Is your dignity being maintained?”

The listening booths, he said, are “a toe in the water of a larger discussion we’d like to have.”


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer