Fostering the Patient Voice in Medicine | Sarah Kucharski

Living with rare disease, anyone will tell you that it's isolating because you're not just going to like bump into somebody on the elevator who shares your same diagnosis and it's not the kind of thing that there are sport group meetings held in the local church basement either and so is really about social media.


Sarah E. Kucharski is a patient advocate, speaker, writer, patient, communications and health care consultant

Sarah’s Story

I got  involved in patient advocacy because I am a rare disease patient and as a rare disease patient it is extremely important to be able to be actively engaged in care to take a certain responsibility for directing your care, because you’re yourself 24/7, 365 and that's a lot more time than the doctors will ever really get to spend with you. I was diagnosed with rare disease when I was 31 and it actually came about because I had done a lot of investigation into my own care. My background is as a journalist and so I'd read all the information that I could get my hands on, done the research, read the medical journals and actually written an email to a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic and said, I know that sounds kind of crazy, but I think that I have this rare disease. She wrote back and said, I think you're right.

My medical history had been really complicated, for years as a teen preteen, I'd actually presented with gastrointestinal trouble and nobody ever thought GI problems, vascular cause. It took a very long time for us to even get to the point that anyone started looking down that path. I went through having triple bypass surgery that ultimately failed. I lost my left kidney. I had a stroke, four brain aneurysms, three of which were coiled and a gastric rupture. After having that in a period of about five to six years, that's when I said he didn't. Nobody has just this bad luck, like there's got to be something more here. There's got to be something overarching and that's when I really got serious about doing my research and reach the diagnosis.

Isolation & Rare Disease

Living with rare disease, anyone will tell you that it's isolating because you're not just going to like bump into somebody on the elevator who shares your same diagnosis and it's not the kind of thing that there are sport group meetings held in the local church basement either and so is really about social media. That without the Internet, without twitter and Facebook, or even registries and individual hospital systems, their forum board, etc.,, it would be so incredibly hard to find a patient community. We can maybe be a little less particular in that maybe a person doesn't have to share exactly our same diagnosis, but they are a rare disease patient too. So they understand some of the struggles of achieving diagnosis, of routine care, of having anybody else who says, you know, yes, me too, I know what that's like.

Health & Patient Empowerment

As far as my health, knock on wood, everything's actually pretty good right now. Things have been quiet, from just a pure health standpoint, I'm doing great. Thinking about the patient experience and its role in health care for rare disease patients, there's a saying of when you hear hoofbeats look for horses, but we need providers who are willing to entertain the notion that sometimes hoofbeats actually are zebras.

We need people who are willing to think outside the box and be curious. Curiosity, I think is one of the most valuable components of any person is what pursues you to find answers, to explore things, to get new knowledge about anything and so I would encourage that risk taking, that curiosity and if we can use that in a way that advances care, that is not reckless. I think perhaps sometimes people think of curiosity and in rare disease diagnosis as trying to be house MD and it's not necessarily about that. It's about really just asking the questions to explore the possibilities.

Rare Disease & Stigma

Having a rare disease inherently. I think people they hear that and they pause for a moment of it may very well be based in fear of what is this thing? Can it impact me? Is it transferable? Anything like that in rare diseases are really so much more common than people realize. The last statistics that I read about rare diseases was that combined, they affect more than like aids and cancer combined because there are 7,000 known rare diseases. It just means that we're a very fragmented population, but chances are, you actually probably know someone with a rare disease and there are diseases that you may have heard of that get a little bit more name recognition that it's not necessarily as rare as you may think, in a way. It's not something to be afraid of because actually research into rare diseases has unlocked information about many more common diseases that when you look at research studies and research arms that pursuing the mechanisms of these rare diseases, we can find out so much more about things that are more comments such as alzheimer's or diabetes.

Outlook on the Healthcare Environment

My overall outlook on the healthcare environment has changed over the past six years or so. In a way I feel like I used to be more hopeful because I was also more naive. Seeing how long change takes is maddening and depressing in a way. We're still trying so hard to push some of the same needles that we were trying to push years ago. I'm not someone who's been at this for 20, 30 years and I'm frustrated. There have been things that have happened politically that have pushed us backwards and I worry that for people like me, we may lose some of the protections that we’ve gained. I try very hard to maintain a sense of optimism and actually one of the guys here at Planetree, his name is Alan Manning and he's actually, I think VP of Planetree. He gave a wonderful lesson on hope as a speaker here a few years ago that he said; hope can change, hope isn't a stagnant thing. I had always worried that the people who felt like they hoped for change weren't maybe doing enough to impact it, but we can hope for different things in that whole change along the pathway that it grows and it becomes something that expands based on what we've learned. That's the first definition of hope that I've ever really liked. It makes me feel like it does respond to the changes around us.

Advice to All

I want to encourage people to stay at it, to keep trying to make a difference, to maybe know when they get into it that the needle move slowly or at least know that they're not alone in feeling like the needle is moving so slowly. That may be a different problem that we have to solve. We talk about physician burnout, we talk about patient burnout. How can we address burnout from trying to make things better, from trying to find solutions from getting ourselves to a point that we're not going to give up.

Planetree’s Impact

The Planetree organization and this conference is something that I learned about I think three, maybe four years ago and I was utterly shocked that I had not heard about them sooner because this was a group that I could say was actually doing everything right. That how they're approaching care, how they're focusing on patient centered care, but from a very provider focused angle is really interesting. It's really encouraging and it's something that I as a patient support because we often talk about patient experience as being something that’s so patient focused without talking about the people who are actually supposed to provide the care, and caring for those people. Making their environment, their jobs, their reward system, something that is conducive to a healthy care environment, that's only going to benefit all of us. I hope that more people get involved with Planetree. I hope that more systems see opportunities for patient engagement that aren't solely patient focused, but that we have opportunities to contribute to measures that will improve provider staff, employee care, so that they can do a great job of caring for us.