Kathryn West, AM ’17

Kathryn WestStorytelling and communication have always intrigued Kathryn West, who puts those interests to use at SSA.

“As a child, I liked to read and was always drawn to books about health and how people deal with illness,” says West.

She is completing the Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy (GPHAP) program of study, an interdisciplinary program that is based at SSA that includes students from UChicago Booth, Harris, Law, and Pritzker.

As part of GPHAP, she participated in the Interprofessional Student Hotspotting Learning Collaborative, as part of a team of students representing social work, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, business, and policy that met on a regular basis with people who are heavy users of the medical system. Research has shown that a small group of patients with multiple, complicated conditions can become the heaviest users of medical services.

The students met with patients, held weekly meetings as a group with a faculty mentor, and took part in monthly teleconferences with students around the country who are participating in the program. They also attend national conferences.

The Student Hotspotting program is intended to determine if better social services can lead to better outcomes for the patients who make frequent visits to hospitals.

The student team visited one middle-aged woman in the hospital after a surgery.

“After sitting with that one patient, it became clear how isolating illness can be, especially when it requires hospitalization. There’s always talk about how hard it is for patients to make it to their appointments, but it’s often hard for friends and family members to visit patients when they’re in the hospital, which makes the experience of being hospitalized even more isolating,” says West.

“The interdisciplinary team was really useful because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the ideals brought by any one perspective, but in the real world, those ideals need to be preserved while working alongside and with the ethics, ideals, and realities of many other perspectives and professions,” West explains. “It was a great way to learn about the strengths of social work and where that lens can be useful, but also when other lenses need to take priority in order to have the best patient care.”

West’s storytelling background includes her undergraduate years, when she was a creative writing major at Northwestern University. West had opportunities to learn about storytelling and medicine when she completed a documentary as a senior project, which allowed her to tap into the conversations happening at Rush University Medical Center and connect with patients.

In the documentary, family members and others in the community provided their perspectives on the problem of securing an organ transplant, that is made worse by the lack of medical insurance. Although 20 percent of transplanted organs come from the uninsured, only one percent of the uninsured are able to get transplants, the documentary points out.

“I think it’s important that patients are able to tell their stories and for people to listen. Often the conversation in the doctor’s office is one in which the doctor does most of the talking,” she says.

Her field placement has also brought her closer to understanding the needs of patients. She works with the Comprehensive Care Program at University of Chicago Medicine. “With the Comprehensive Care Program, there’s a new arm of their study called the Comprehensive Care, Community, and Culture Program that offers arts and cultural programming to patients through a program called the Artful Living Program to help engage patients holistically.”

She adds, “I’ve done a lot of work helping to think about that program and have helped plan and execute events alongside the full-time staff. I helped with other tasks related to grant writing and built up a database of social resources, but I spent quite a bit of time with the Artful Living Program. I also did an independent study about creative therapies and offered a workshop in the spring related to storytelling. The hope is to help connect patients and their providers in a new way.”

Another way in which West uses her communications skills is as an editor for the Advocates’ Forum, the student journal at SSA. It is one of only a few master’s level, student produced journals in social work schools around the country.

“We look for articles that are relevant and original,” says West, who coedited the journal with fellow second year student Nora Frazin. “I think Advocates’ Forum fits into my goals of storytelling and communicating because it’s a forum to share the best academic work of my peers. I think listening is just as important as talking in storytelling, and this journal is a chance to listen to the expertise and ideas of others at SSA. It’s also a chance to share those things with the rest of the community.”

“As an editor, it’s always a balance with submissions. We want to accept the pieces that are the best as they are; on the other hand, we want to leave room for growth as the piece changes with editing. This is the same process as with hearing any other story and wanting to hear what’s there, but also what can be filled in and added. It’s a constant movement of writing and rewriting your story when you’re the one telling it and also when you’re hearing stories from others,” she says.