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      Art is Helping Remake Medicine

      Healthcare Rethink - Episode 44

      Urban sits down with Emily Peters, CEO and Founder of Uncommon Bold. Together, they discuss the profound impact of art on the healthcare industry, tracing its influence from ancient times to the present day.



       

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      Brian Urban:

      Yes, this is the Healthcare Rethink podcast. I am your host, Brian Urban. And today joining our show we have CEO and founder of Uncommon Bold, Emily Peters. Emily, thank you for joining our show.

      Emily Peters:

      Hey, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here today.

      Brian Urban:

      This is so much fun. Before we even started recording, we were just giggling and laughing, so it'll be a fun conversation to get in here. Emily, with every episode we do, we love to get our audience familiar with our guests. So let's start from the top and who is Emily Peters before she founded four startups, before you've had this amazing brand communication impact across the healthcare ecosystem, before you were an author. Let's go all the way back. What took you into this world now of blending art and communication into healthcare?

      Emily Peters:

      Well, I got my start originally as a sports writer. I was a high school prep sports writer at the Sac Bee. My brother still works there. I worked there. The Stockton Record, the Modesto Bee. And so even though it doesn't maybe seem super relevant to the work that I do today, I think it actually is. Sports writing is about taking really complex numbers like baseball box scores or football metrics, all these complex kind of technical details and making it into something that becomes a human interest story. And now it's like the player whose mom is sick and he's playing for her, the guy who came out, this is his first time ever on the field and all these heart-string stories. And so I got my start there and that's where I learned certainly to be a good writer. That's where I learned fast and quick writing and that storytelling, interviewing people.

      Still so much of what I do today comes from those newsrooms, but that was short-lived. I only did that for a few years, and then I went into working in tech startups. So I was part of four different early stage tech companies. Two in the Fintech space where I led communications and marketing and then two in the digital health space, which I was part of the founding team at Practice Fusion, which is a wild ride, one of the original kind of sexy digital health companies. There was no such thing as a sexy health IT company before that. That was pretty exciting. And then I was part of the founding team as well at Doximity. And then after that I went out on my own and started consulting. And that was 10 years ago. So I'm still out there. I'm still addicted to the healthcare space, the challenges and opportunities that we have in this world. It's just very exciting.

      Brian Urban:

      I love it, Emily. And it's never ending in healthcare in terms of the storytelling and innovation imagination that needs to be integrated more and more. And that's what we're here to talk about is, and I got a advanced uncorrected gallery edition of the book, too. So this is back room right here, Artists-

      Emily Peters:

      Special edition.

      Brian Urban:

      Artists Remaking Medicine, which I believe has just gone out to the public that can order this book.

      Emily Peters:

      You can pre-order it today. It's coming out October 15th. So it's almost out in the world.

      Brian Urban:

      Yeah. Emily, let's dive into this book. I found it so fascinating. You start off by talking about how medicine was socially prescribed, and we're going back tens of thousands of years to where you start us in the journey of this book. So before we go into any particular excerpts here, take me through the idea of this book and what you hope your intent is going forward for your readers.

      Emily Peters:

      So we talked about how healthcare is never boring. To work in this sector is never boring, but sometimes it's a little bit too never boring. You get this whiplash between the amazing miracles of new innovations and treatments and the incredible physicians and nurses and patients and all this beauty that is in our healthcare system.

      And then you face the other side of it, which is the burnout, the harm that's caused to patients, the financial toxicity. And so sometimes that whiplash becomes too much, and we see a lot of people leaving the healthcare sector or getting burned out or I don't know about you, but when I go into my doctor often that person is not having a great day. That person is frustrated being there and tired and overworked. And so I started writing books as a way of finding a place to sit and still have power, but be not tugged in either direction.

      How do I sit and really understand medicine for what it is? And also how do I create more power to change healthcare? And so this book started out as a real thesis of maybe artists are really powerful in our healthcare system. And I had a couple stories that I knew. I knew of a patient who was a heart, lung transplant survivor who's a photographer and who used her photography in her camera to literally have more power when she was in a hospital or in an exam room, and to be seen as a person, not just a patient and a body, but as a full person.And so I started with her, I started with a couple other interviews.

      When I started to really look at this interconnection between art and medicine, it started to go back further and further and further into history. And so even things like the colors that we chose in the book, which are coal and ochre, are actually medicines that have been used also as paints for a hundred thousand years. And it just started to be like, oh my gosh, there's this huge pattern here of the interconnectivity between art and medicine. So I came at it from, this was supposed to be a business book about power and innovation and transformation, and it turned into this whole book about a hundred thousand year human history. And then also, where do we go next? We're going into outer space, and we're going into the future that's very different from where we are today. So it turned into a much, much bigger book and one that I think is much more vibrant thanks to those collaborators and participants in the book than if I had just tried to write it myself.

      Brian Urban:

      It's always nice when you have a lending hand to the perspective of healthcare. And I like how you said that this book started out to be more of a power innovation and change book, but then you blended history with art and really the science and the impact that art has to us as someone experiencing that. And I thought that was such a beautiful story. And you mentioned the paints as a part of the color scheme and what was used later at the end of the book, referring back to the beginning. I thought the way you closed the book was really fascinating.

      Emily Peters:

      Oh, thank you.

      Brian Urban:

      Yeah, but let me get to one, I mentioned it a moment ago, but I want to talk about the MASS Design Group. So Michael Murphy Jr., fascinating person, amazing background. It's something that I believe you're connecting in the book was a lot of the early, I guess you could say, physicians back in ancient times also had architecture as a background, sculpting as a background. So Michael Murphy Jr. one of the leaders of the MASS Design Group, is also kind of having that background. And he had some amazing projects in particular in Africa that helped redesign institutions of healthcare into institutions of healing and recovery and of acceptance. So it was a really beautiful story. So take me into the conversation and the research that you had around the MASS Design Group.

      Emily Peters:

      Yeah, I was so nervous to reach out to them because to me they're so famous and they're so prominent and I was really nervous to talk to them and they were amazing. And interestingly, actually, one of the people interviewed for that chapter is deaf, and we had an interpreter on the Zoom call with us, which was very cool. I've never had a Zoom call like that before for the interview.

      So yeah, the architecture is a fascinating piece, because I'd always felt like why are hospitals the way that they are? Why are they designed the way that they are? Why are they these fortresses? And are they designed for healing? What role can they play in the community? And that's something that MASS Design literally wrote the book on. They wrote a book called The Architecture of Health, and it's an incredible book that goes into how hospitals are designed very intently today to protect themselves.

      And you start to see that defensive posture. They're set up for security, and for things to be sterile, and to reduce lawsuits, and they're really kind of designed more for that than to be healing spaces for people. And so you start to just see that so many of the choices that we make in healthcare that we feel like are just the way that things are actually often intentional choices or things that people unintentionally chose, but not that long ago.

      And so when he was creating these new hospitals in Africa especially, he created this process called Local Fabrication, Lo-Fab, and he involved the communities in Rwanda and actually demoing the old hospital, taking that away, they created thousands of jobs. They involved local artisans in doing the stone work and the iron work and developing the gardens and just really made it a community effort where the process of building the hospital in of itself was very healing to the community, created a lot of jobs, created a lot of art, and then also just really thinking about the hospital in a different way with, he has this campaign against hallways. So there's no hallways in this hospital. Everything is outdoor courtyards. It's all ventilated naturally. There's no air conditioning, there's no elevators. It's just a really beautiful healing space.

      Brian Urban:

      It is so beautiful. And here's actually one of those as a preview to the book here. That's one of the depictions that you'll see there of the beautiful design that is of courtyards. It's almost like a campus feel in terms of health services. So it's spread out.

      Emily Peters:

      Yeah, architecture is an interesting place to get in because it is a highly regulated field. It's very scientific, the engineering and the regulations, especially in hospital and healthcare design that you have to adhere to. It's very, very complex, but it's also really beautiful and it's about the experience. And so it was an interesting place to enter in through the lens of architecture to think about how do we design for healthcare that is more vibrant, that is more healing, that's more sustainable. And architects often, there's another group in the book called Superstudio that we talk about who they're big visionaries and they're kind of showing us what is possible even if those buildings never get built. We look to architects to say, what could the future look like?

      Brian Urban:

      And what are the possibilities? I think sometimes is where questions and curiosity and imagination stops in healthcare, not just in physical constructs, but in other models as well delivering care. I think you're right. The way that our healthcare ecosystem in today's time has been impacted is because of the legalistic society we live in now, they're more based around patient safety, which is very important, but it goes beyond that in a lot of ways, and it kind of takes away from the actual origin of healthcare, providing healthcare from a position from one person to another.

      What I thought was interesting that you had captured from Michael Murphy Jr. of the MASS Design Group was he kind of had this epiphany with his father who was very ill in an intensive care unit, and he had kind of backed up from his reality for a moment and looked at the scenario which his father was in, which was he was passing away, a dimly lit, plain-colored, a very not loving place to leave this earth. And he thought, wouldn't there be a better place than this or a better feeling or a better experience that's more whole to a human. I thought that was so unique that you were able to capture that memory of Michael's and put it in the frame here.

      Emily Peters:

      And there's so many stories like that in the book. There's also Yoko Sen, who's a musician, and she's in the hospital and she's hearing the sound of the alarms and it's just so toxic to her. It's just so loud and screeching and crashing and the alarms making these horrible chords. And so she started, that was the moment for her that then set her out on a three-year journey to create healthcare.

      So a whole theme in the whole book is really like, how did we get here? What is happening? How did we get to this moment that healthcare looks like this, that it's making a lot of people really, really miserable? It's definitely saving our lives. There's so many miracles in healthcare all the time. We can do transplant surgery and brain surgery and all these incredible things. Just even antibiotics, right? It's amazing.

      But at the same time, is our healthcare system today really healing for us? It's good at saving lives. Is it good at being a place that people want to work? Is it good at being a place that you get the support and the care that you actually really need to live a healthy life? There's some work that we need to do. And so the book is over and over again, these people just asking those questions. How did we get here? Why is it like this?

      And then I think once that takes you out of the bitterness or the demoralized mode into that curiosity mode of how did we get here? Who chose the color of those rubber gloves? Who designed this hospital this way? Who chose the sound of these alarms? That curiosity then starts turning into, well, maybe we could change it. Maybe we could actually change these things. And it's a lot more productive, I think, for me than just being mad at the healthcare system all the time, right? Deserves to be mad at, but let's try to fix it. Let's have some imagination around it.

      Brian Urban:

      Yes, and I love the ingenuity and the productivity reach that your book speaks to because there's even a campaign out there with a lot of other musical artists that are really raging for price transparency, which is great, but it's so complex to be able to provide transparent prices based on different services, payer mix. There's a lot more that goes into it than just the healthcare side being finger pointing at. It's everybody. So contributing is something I thought was very, very lovely that you and your team, not just pointing a finger and blaming and putting facts out there, but putting ideas.

      And one thing that you captured, I love this, I do want to talk about the photography, but I think the photography overlaid nicely to the Chroma Project and you were in colors. So all the senses of our human condition, sights being a very important one in terms of when you're receiving care and your memories and how fast you can heal from something. The Chroma Project, I took it as those delivering healthcare were able to display their kind of emotional transparency, but there's more to it than that. Tell me if I'm wrong, but tell me about your interaction and learning with the Chroma Project.

      Emily Peters:

      This is a project I teamed up with a great friend of mine, Anna, who is a former IDEO designer. She works with Nike, she works with all these incredible places, and she's a big user experience, just like creative, brilliant person and also an artist herself. She makes these giant paintings with these bright, bright colors. She has this Scandinavian energy that's just radiates at you through the screen. We teamed up and said, "What could we do that would bring more color into a hospital setting? What could we do that would play with that?" She had had our own experience of being hospitalized for several weeks when she was pregnant with her son during Covid and being basically cut off from everything, just being in the hospital by herself, essentially, with just nurses checking in on her every once in a while.

      And so we developed this kind of user experience journey through it where we started to say, "What if there isn't one right color in healthcare? What if everybody has a different color or a different feeling that they need from a hospital in that moment?" And we have a lot of technology today with cheap LEDs and cheap sensors and things like we could make a hospital that lives and breathes an emotion and in color in a way that would be actually quite affordable to do.

      And the great thing is emotions are not covered under HIPAA. So you could have a hospital that has colors that it's communicating out to its neighbors, and it's communicating all those things that are happening, the joy and the sorrow and the hope and the pain. Hospitals are so packed full of all these feelings, and today they're so walled off from their neighbors. People don't trust what's happening inside of a hospital. You can't get a sense of really what's going on inside of there.

      And so could you create a really simple little sensor that somebody could come in, choose a color for their experience that day, whether they're a patient staying or they're coming in just for a procedure, use that color then. So instead of the doctor coming in and saying, "How are you feeling today?" You would say, "Hey, tell me about why did you choose green today? Or why did you choose black? Tell me how you're feeling. Let's have an emotional conversation." And then those colors starting to come together and really represent the whole tapestry of what's happening inside of a hospital.

      It was a very, very cool project. I think it's a great example of the humility of not coming in and saying like, "Hey, there's one right color for hospital." Everything in here should be peach. It should be yellow. We actually surveyed over a hundred people what color they would choose next time they went to the hospital, and it was so different than what I expected. It was like bright neon purples and bright, bright greens and oranges. And I was like, this is so different from what we actually have in a healthcare setting.

      Brian Urban:

      Very different. Very different. Thank you for taking us deeper into that sliver of the book here, the Chroma Project. I think more projects like that need to be adopted. And it's actually so interesting because as I was reading that section, Emily, something that we've done here in the Urban household a couple of months ago is put a color chart of emotions on our refrigerator, and our son is able to tell us what he's feeling, and that kind of breaks down little barriers and awkwardness. And then we can have a conversation of what he's feeling and using his words. It made me immediately think of this, we all need that no matter what age and in a hospital setting or healthcare setting. How helpful that can be for addressing a lot of other challenges that maybe a physician cannot see. So just thought that was so beautiful that you dove into that.

      Emily Peters:

      Thank you. Yeah, it's a good example. Children's hospitals are so vibrant and energetic and beautiful, and then you turn 18 and it's like, no. No more. No more of that for you. No more interactive art and beauty. We need this for everybody. Everybody who wants to be in a setting where you're trying to be cared for, you're trying to pass away, you're trying to bring a new life into those world. That's just a very intense environment and it deserves, I think, to be really honest with all those different feelings that are in that setting.

      Brian Urban:

      So Emily, I want to take us back into the photography side of this. The use of image inside this book is very compelling. Makes me think of a lot of really creative risk-taking artists that are capturing images related to climate change around the world. A lot of the overlay into how impactful that can be, the images of archaic medicine and therapeutics to the images of projects being done around the world and healthcare setting, redesign.

      Let's talk about your collaboration with photographers for a moment. I want to pull them out. Tell me about your work. Maybe taking a lot of artists that are used to displaying different physical components of a person or of a landscape and putting their work into healthcare. Tell me about that thought process. This is so crazy. I love this. It's really helpful for the reader, but tell me about how you put that together.

      Emily Peters:

      Yeah, so that first person, Kathleen, she was the very first person I talked to three years ago, and I had no idea what this book was going to be about. It was going to be about somehow changing medicine. That's all I knew. And her story of using photography as a transplant patient just really set me on this course of, that's really interesting. What could I do with this?

      The second conversation I had for the book was with an incredible physician who's an activist, who does these incredible programs, who's suing universities, who's launching companies, and Dr. Stella Safo. She told me in our conversation, she was like, "I think when it actually comes to the future, I don't think we can even think of what's possible." The imaginations for healthcare or people working in healthcare are so broken at this point. There's so many people who are demoralized or who just feel really hopeless, who've lost that ability to imagine what is even possible. That then set me on this course of like, oh, how do I convince Dr. Safo all this stuff is possible. It's all happening here.

      And so photography is a huge piece of that because it's not just a drawing or a color or a feeling, but it's real. This is a real thing that's really happening. And so we have photos in the book of people recovering with scars from massive transplant surgeries. We have photos in the book of a pathologist who takes street photography and uses it because he's staring in a microscope all day kind of disconnected from the patients that he's helping care for. He goes out onto the street, takes pictures of people, feels connected again to humans through his photography.

      And so there's a lot of really interesting photos in the book, both of artworks and also of people and projects that I think show this is not a book of hype. This is not a book of like, oh, wouldn't it be great if we could do all these things? These are actually things that are happening today that people have done that you can do as well.

      Brian Urban:

      So Emily, you yourself are a big advocate and spokesperson for maternal health outside of your work for Uncommon Bold, but is a part of that experience in life and your spokespersonship here. Is that coming through in the book at all? It feels like it is from an aggressive love and let's change and do better perspective. Is that in here at all, or can you tell us about some of the maybe different things that you've recently worked on outside of some of the work we've talked so far on.

      Emily Peters:

      Love and outrage. It's love and outrage all the way down, right? Yeah. For me, I had worked in the healthcare and digital health space for several years before I had the unfortunate experience of being a critical care patient myself. I had a totally normal pregnancy and a pretty normal delivery, and I had essentially died in childbirth after that. And I received 32 transfusions of blood in six hours. I had interventional radiology. Nobody knew if I was alive or dead for six hours. It was horrible. And I woke up in the ICU after that experience, being alive and having no idea what had happened to me. And just really realizing, hey, it's not enough for me to be just trying to do good in healthcare. I need to be trying to change healthcare and change the culture of healthcare and to hopefully stop this incredible crisis we have in maternal health. And to be able to just make a healthcare system that is safer.

      Because one of the most fundamental things that we can do in healthcare is deliver babies. If you never go to a hospital ever again in your life, you probably were born in a hospital. It's also one of the most dangerous and actually least researched, least innovated areas of healthcare. And so I feel like if we can start to solve the maternal health crisis and make it safer for women in America to have children, which is such an essential function of our healthcare system, that is a great canary in the coal mine of being able to change other systems.

      So I woke up, I recovered, I did an event with the blood bank where we met my actual blood donors. And I was able to say thank you to them. It was incredible. I still speak out about blood donation and maternal health, but being kind of an impatient person, I was like, well, what else can I do? That's not enough. And so writing books is a big piece of it. Using the books to talk about culture change and to talk about what is possible and to hopefully spark some imagination for people who feel that they don't have the imagination of what's possible in healthcare.

      And then the other thing is the work that we do with clients. So we work with a lot of really amazing companies that are on the side of good, that are trying to make healthcare more affordable, more human for the people working in the healthcare system, trying to... There's a million and a half problems in healthcare. We all need to be working on solving them. There's no one person who can solve all of it. And so I'm lucky that I get to do it in my personal life through the books and then also with the clients just trying to every possible which way make the healthcare system a little bit better.

      Brian Urban:

      And thank you for allowing me to connect that dot because I felt like it was in the book, and I wanted to be able to learn a little bit more of your experience and thankful that you had the recovery you did, and you're with us today. You're making these amazing, not only pieces of content, pieces of art, I think pieces of influence. So Artists Remaking Medicine, I'm already hooked. I'm a big fan. I'm excited for maybe the audiobook, if that ever comes out.

      Emily Peters:

      That will be... I know we have to make a Kindle version and an audio version. We're working on it.

      Brian Urban:

      I hope so, Emily, I wanted to take a moment here to bring us to a good close. And we haven't gone deep into Uncommon Bold, but I did want to note your impact and partnerships in terms of brand communication, that's a huge needle to move in healthcare, the way that these institutions are talking about themselves and who's at the center of their services, not just of their business. I wanted to elevate that for our audience here, because that's very difficult. That takes years. That takes big relationships, big creative risks. So I wanted to just congratulate Uncommon Bold on doing that type of work. You've clearly done that across the healthcare ecosystem, around the US. Your team is all US based, not just West Coast. So I wanted to note that.

      That said, take me into the future, Emily. So what will Uncommon Bold be? What will, I guess, art and creative thinking do to healthcare? What's going to happen in a few years if we allow this adoption to happen?

      Emily Peters:

      It often feels right now, like we are sort of at peak idea for healthcare. There are a lot of really amazing ideas that people have of how we're going to help fix our healthcare system, implement new technologies, whole person care, population health, all the buzzwords, all the acronyms. There are so many good ideas out there in healthcare today. The issue that we have is implementation, right? Ideas are cheap, change is hard. Implementation is hard. Engaging people in their healthcare system is very, very hard.

      So I'm excited when I think about the next 10 years on the engagement side. So how do we get physicians to see that this new technology is coming, it's actually deserving of their time and attention, and that they should participate in it. How do we get health plans that compete with each other to share data with each other and to sign up for new frameworks? How do we get home health nurses to feel like they have more power and control over their patient panels and to be driving around taking care of people and feeling really engaged and powerful?

      There are so many incredible engagement programs that we could be working on right now that are just about taking good ideas that already exist and putting them into play. So let's intervene before people get amputations for their diabetes. Let's get people walkers when they're discharged from the hospital and they need that help.

      And we're seeing a lot of economic shift in healthcare, which is the thing that ultimately does drive actual change in healthcare, which is it's all about the money and the prices and the economics of how things work. And so I do feel like we're kind of at this tipping point now where I'm excited to be working with people who are adapting to the new payment models, into value-based care into some of these new systems.

      Here in California it's the CalAIM program. It's really focused on reforming our Medicaid programs. There's a lot of energy. I spent all last week going to conferences, talking to people about CalAIM and other things that are happening and federal programs and innovation programs. But none of that actually happens unless it happens. And unless we get really good at persuasion and building trust and really repairing our relationships in the healthcare system, we have worked really hard in healthcare to lose the trust of a lot of people. A lot of people. Physicians, surgeons, nurses, doctors, hospital administrators, all of it. Everybody does not trust our healthcare system. So how do we start to rebuild that trust? How do we bring in artists who I think are really powerful communicators and who really bring a ton of authenticity and genuineness into those conversations to help rebuild trust? And so that's a lot of work.

      The book is about art and medicine. The work that we do at Uncommon Bold often is also about art and medicine. And so we're bringing in local illustrators, local painters, local musicians. How can we get somebody who's really on the ground if you're trying to prevent diabetes's negative outcomes in Omaha. Let's get somebody in Omaha who is there, who has an authentic perspective, who's listening to people who can do it an authentic way. We need to get way, way better at healthcare communications in this country if we're going to put any of these good ideas into play. And that's what I'm excited in terms of Uncommon Bold, and what we can be doing.

      Brian Urban:

      Wow. Emily Peters, ideas are cheap, change is hard, but artists, I think they're the utility player that healthcare has been waiting for. So Artists Remaking Medicine, it's available coming October 16th, so you can get this. And hey, if there's an audio version, Emily, let me know. But I will tell you, I'm so thankful that we got to have you for a teeny part of your time today on our show. Thank you, Emily, for joining.

      Emily Peters:

      Thank you, Brian. And keep up the good work. We need every single person we can to create a better healthcare system, so by the time we're old and we're in the hospital, it's a totally different landscape.

      Brian Urban:

      I love the vision that you're thinking of, and I hope it's a part of our reality. And for more exciting insights and excerpts, please join us at finthrive.com.

       

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