Conor Friedersdorf: Your last job at the CDC was as a global-health diplomat in the Caribbean. That sounds wonderful. Why did you leave, and how did you end up founding your own company?
Lisa Fitzpatrick: The more that I climbed the bureaucratic ladder, the more disconnected I felt from everyday people. So I moved to D.C. in 2007. I’ve interacted with thousands of community members over the last decade or so, just understanding what their challenges are, what their health and health-care concerns are.
Over the years, I became most passionate about community engagement and health literacy. I started Grapevine Health to improve health communication in Black and brown communities. We mostly do outreach physically on the ground with people, answering their questions. I started a video series called “Dr. Lisa on the Street,” focused on engaging people in conversations to connect them with health information, but also because I’m trying to build a brand around providing trusted health information that bridges the community back to the health system. I think the business model is payment from insurance companies, because they are required to engage their members. We’re trying to find proof-of-concept money so we can go to these health plans with data to say, ‘We can do engagement better than you can,’ meaning the health communication needed to keep people out of the emergency department and out of the hospital unnecessarily.
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Friedersdorf: How does your outreach help prevent an emergency-room visit?
Fitzpatrick: We can do this by building trust and using smartphones to help scale our communications and support. In the case of a woman who had daily belly pain that wasn’t severe and had been there for a long time, she really just needed a pregnancy test. In another case, there was a woman who was crowd-sourcing health information about her rash on Facebook. I asked her to call me. We talked about the situation. In less than 10 minutes, I told her I probably knew what she had. I think she had a rash from perhaps a bug bite, or something overnight happened. So I told her to take Benadryl, mark the margins of her rash, then text me in 30 minutes. She texted, “Oh, I feel so much better, I’m going to take a nap now.” And she called back in an hour and said, “This is so great. I thank you for helping me because I was about to go to the emergency room, and it would have cost me over $150.” I said to her, “Do you think other people would like to have a service like this?” She absolutely did. These services exist; they just don’t exist for poor people.
Another use case is a gentleman who over two years only used the emergency department and never had a primary-care visit even though he had a doctor. So I took him to breakfast. We had a conversation about health care. And at the end, I said, “I would love to follow up and invite you to some of our events. Will it be okay if we send you a text?” He said, “Well, just call me on the phone. I want to talk to you.” And something about the way he said it helped me realize that this gentleman had a literacy problem. “So you have trouble with reading?” I said. And he said, “Yeah, I always have. I didn’t really go to school growing up.” You know, that was very humbling for me, but it made me realize how many people are falling through the cracks, because going to a primary-care visit can be very overwhelming for someone who cannot read, with all the paperwork and everything you have to do.