One doctor’s crusade to improve health literacy

Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick believes plainspoken information from trusted messengers can help shrink health disparities, and some insurers are buying in.

Listen 18:02
Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick believes plainspoken information from trusted messengers can help shrink health disparities, and some insurers are buying in. (Ryan Levi/Tradeoffs)

Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick believes plainspoken information from trusted messengers can help shrink health disparities, and some insurers are buying in. (Ryan Levi/Tradeoffs)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast. It first aired on Tradeoffs, a weekly health policy podcast. Find both shows on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick has spent her entire adult life answering people’s questions about health care — and not just for her patients.

“My family, [my] friends would leave the doctor’s office and then send me a text message: ‘Here’s what he said. Like, what does that mean?’” Fitzpatrick said.

Over her decades in government, academia, and hospital medicine, she’s witnessed the consequences of people in her community not understanding or trusting their health care provider: Black people report higher levels of mistrust in the health care system than white Americans and suffer worse outcomes in everything from maternal mortality to mental health to life expectancy.

Fitzpatrick has long believed those disparities could be shrunk if the health care community did a better job of explaining health information in simple terms and engaging trusted messengers — in other words, sending better messages from better messengers.

She found early in her career that she had a gift for breaking down complex health care ideas, and as a Black physician, Fitzpatrick’s friends and family often trusted her more than their own usually white doctors.

“I was always thinking about, ‘How can I reach more people?’ Because if you don’t understand something, it can be very scary. And when you’re afraid, you avoid, you delay. And that leads to worse health outcomes, it leads to death,” Fitzpatrick said.

That’s why she founded Grapevine Health, a startup she believes can help more people understand their health care. Grapevine creates short videos featuring Black and other doctors of color explaining everything from kidney disease to how to sign up for Medicaid.

In the last 20 months, Grapevine has landed contracts with two Medicaid managed care plans and one public employee health plan in the Washington D.C. area, and Fitzpatrick is in talks with four national insurers.

“We can introduce Grapevine as a bridge between the member and the health plan,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can help people understand. We can answer questions. We can alleviate fear.”

Inspiration from an unlikely source

Fitzpatrick has been thinking about how to reach more people with plainspoken, trusted medical information for more than 15 years, going back to her time as a medical epidemiologist at the CDC and professor at Howard University College of Medicine.

But it was in 2013, while working as an administrator for a hospital in Washington D.C., that she figured out how it might work. It started as so many great health care ideas do — with late night comedy.

“One day, I was watching Jay Leno Jaywalking,” Fitzpatrick said.

The classic segment featured Leno taking to the streets of Los Angeles to ask people questions about geography, history, and politics — questions they would inevitably fumble, to great comedic effect.

“It was educational, but it was also entertaining. And I thought, ‘What if I can do that with health?’” She said.

A few months later, Fitzpatrick went onto the National Mall with a cameraman she’d met at her local bike club and started asking and educating people about the flu. They edited the footage and put a short video up on YouTube. They did the same thing for the human body, talking with your doctor, and diabetes.

She called it “Dr. Lisa on the Street.”

Subscribe to The Pulse

“People in the community loved it,” Fitzpatrick said. “They wanted more. They gave suggestions: Can you make a video about this and that?”

Unlike Jay Leno, Fitzpatrick never made fun of the people she interviewed. There were no punch lines, just someone taking the time to explain things in a simple and non-judgmental way.

Fitzpatrick remembers one woman who was hovering nearby while she was filming near a hospital. She told Fitzpatrick she’d just been discharged from the hospital after having a blood clot in her lung, but she was still feeling short of breath and unsure what to do.

“She was scared,” Fitzpatrick said, “but [her discharge paperwork] didn’t give her any instructions. So, she was asking me like a stranger on the corner, ‘What do I do now?’”

Fitzpatrick spent 30 minutes with the woman, and after she walked away, Fitzpatrick was left in a daze.

“I felt profoundly sad,” she said. “I felt angry that we have all of this lip service around helping people, yet people feel forgotten. They feel like they’re on their own, all alone. And with as many resources as we are pouring into health care, I think there’s no excuse for that.”

That woman and all the others Fitzpatrick met on the street helped crystalize this foundational but often invisible problem: The health care system was failing to give people — especially Black people — the information they needed, and that was part of why people were suffering.

So, she kept making videos, but “Dr. Lisa on the Street” remained a side hustle — something squeezed between board meetings and grand rounds — until March 2019.

“I just decided to take a leap,” Fitzpatrick said.

‘She knows the environment we’re living in’

Fitzpatrick left her job as Chief Medical Officer for Washington’s Medicaid program and founded Grapevine Health. She moved from her swanky condo in downtown Washington to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Congress Heights. Living alongside the people she hoped to help opened her eyes even more to the struggles they faced.

“[They’re] being bombarded with chronic stress because of the trauma. And I’m not talking about gun violence necessarily, or carjackings. I’m talking about just the trauma associated with being poor, living in scarcity, having to fight for everything,” she said. “Why would you prioritize your health if it’s not bothering you right now?”

The experience made it easier for Fitzpatrick to craft messages she hoped could break through all that stress and trauma, and it resonated for people like 70-year-old Yvonne Smith.

“Grapevine Health and Dr. Lisa are the best kept secret that I wish everyone knew about,” said Smith, who lives just a few minutes from where Fitzpatrick moved.

When Smith first encountered Fitzpatrick in early 2020, Grapevine Health was still a scrappy startup looking for its big break. But the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic gave Grapevine an opening.

Fitzpatrick posted COVID-related videos on Grapevine’s social media accounts and offered virtual information sessions to community groups, including the senior center Smith attended. Smith appreciated Fitzpatrick’s plainspoken explanations and actionable advice.

“She knows the environment we’re living in. She knows we don’t have one grocery store,” Smith said. “So, she understands that it might be difficult for you to get the things you need to be healthy. And she would [suggest] common sense things that are doable.”

Smith credits Fitzpatrick and Grapevine’s videos for helping her cut her blood sugar to below diabetic levels, discovering she was at risk for heart failure and changing how she interacts with her doctors.

“I try to ask three questions for the doctors. I say, ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s our plan? And what else do I need to know that you didn’t tell me?’ So, I could hear her voice in my head,” Smith said.

Yvonne Smith says Fitzpatrick and Grapevine’s videos helped her control her diabetes and take more control of her health care.(Ryan Levi/Tradeoffs)

Insurers are taking an interest

Fitzpatrick points to the impact Grapevine has had on Smith’s health as she pitches insurance companies to take a chance on her young company. She’s particularly focused on Medicaid managed care companies, the private health plans that states pay to cover around 70% of Medicaid beneficiaries nationwide.

A recent report found Medicaid managed care plans regularly connect with just 30 to 60 percent of their members. That lack of engagement can lead to patients not attending regular check-ups, getting important screenings, or managing chronic conditions, which can make them sicker over time.

In Washington D.C., 80% of people on Medicaid are Black, and they are seven times more likely to have diabetes and more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than their white neighbors.

“Frankly, many of the things that we’ve been doing haven’t been working,” said Keith Maccannon, director of marketing for AmeriHealth Caritas DC, which covers 120,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in Washington D.C. Maccannon said they’re lucky if one in four people pick up when they call to remind members to get needed care.

In addition to pushing good health practices, insurers have a financial incentive to improve engagement. Plans can face fines if too few of their members get certain screenings or too many people end up in the hospital.

In 2021, AmeriHealth Caritas DC became the first health plan to bring Grapevine Health on to try to improve their connection with their members.

“Once we connected, it was like kindred spirits,” said AmeriHealth CEO Karen Dale, on her first meeting with Fitzpatrick. “She was saying, ‘I want you to think differently, approach things differently. I can help you with that.’”

Grapevine’s first assignment is working with AmeriHealth members with diabetes. They interviewed patients who do things the insurer wants them to do — like get eye exams to prevent blindness — and those who don’t. Then, Fitzpatrick and her team used that information to make videos they believe will convince more people to take preventative steps. The last step will be texting the videos to AmeriHealth members and measuring their impact on engagement, outcomes, and cost savings.

Fitzpatrick said the expectation is not that every person who sees a Grapevine video will immediately do the best thing for their health. Other factors like lack of transportation, childcare or access to a doctor who takes Medicaid present barriers Grapevine alone can’t overcome.

But if these videos improve people’s well-being and save AmeriHealth money, Fitzpatrick will be able to take that evidence to more health plans. She said she’s pitched around 20 insurers, and most of them so far have said no, citing the company’s youth and lack of proven results.

“To me, it’s so clear all roads lead to trusted health information and understanding health and health care,” she said. “But the challenge is how to make it obvious to everybody else.”

This story comes from the health policy podcast Tradeoffs, a partner of Side Effects Public Media. Dan Gorenstein is Tradeoffs’ executive editor, and Ryan Levi is a reporter/producer for the show, which ran a version of this story on Feb. 2. This story was reported as part of a collaboration with WHYY’s The Pulse, and was made possible in part with support from the Commonwealth Fund. Additional funding was provided by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal