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Anna Deavere Smith tells human stories during health-care summit

It's not every healthcare innovation summit keynote address that can make a person cry--twice, in my case. But then, not every organizing committee brings Anna Deavere Smith to campus for the occasion.

"Shifting Paradigms in Healthcare," as the 2012 GSB Healthcare Innovation Summit was titled, took a turn from talking technology to looking realities of health care straight in the human face. Smith, an actress, playwright and professor (formerly at Stanford), joined Paul Costello, the medical school's chief communications officer, in a conversation about current health disparities. The speakers examined issues addressed in Smith's one-woman show"Let Me Down Easy", which premiered in 2009, and Smith brought some of the characters in her play to the attention of the summit attendees through performance.

During the keynote, Smith portrayed an optimistic cowboy, a cynical doctor, a distrustful patient, a wise South African orphanage director, and Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of Stanford's medical school, to tell their health-care stories as she interpreted them. Drawing from the 320 interviews she conducted while developing her script, Smith detailed instances in which people who sought care instead found abuse or abandonment, and others that showed that the most comforting care for the dying might not be the most scientific.

The presentation balanced the summit's focus on industry and government innovation by bringing to light aspects of health care that aren't measured in studies or promised to be reformed by a congressional act. Smith's straightforward delivery let the characters' words speak for themselves, communicating personal experiences of hardship instead of pointing fingers of blame.

Smith said, "When you have a crisis, you create narratives to tell someone what this means to you." Though case-specific, the narratives speak to larger truths. Smith finished her series of characterizations as Trudy Howell, director of Chance Orphanage, who explains death to terminally ill children and sits with them until they depart. The Howell character comments about her approach to working with sick people this way: "In any case, don't leave them in the dark. Don't leave them in the dark."

Previously: Anna of 1,000 Faces: Let Me Down Easy on PBS’ Great Performances, Dean Pizzo’s concerns about healthcare featured in solo show by Anna Deavere Smith and Let Me Down Easy

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