Our latest PACK Chat is with Jen Horonjeff of Savvy Cooperative. We were so inspired by her story, we had to break it into two parts! This first conversation is all about Jen’s journey as a patient and researcher – the path that took her into the field of Environmental Medicine, human factors research, and multi-stakeholder consulting. As always, this chat is all about getting to know the human behind the innovation. If you have other inspiring humans we should get to know, make the connection by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, here’s Jen’s story!
Time to read: 5 minutes
INTERVIEWER: So Jen, you’ve been in healthcare in some shape or form your whole career – from your undergraduate biomedical engineering major to latest project, the groundbreaking patient cooperative and insights platform, Savvy Cooperative. I’m curious how that journey started for you, and how that’s evolved.
JEN: Well, it starts with being someone who grew up with chronic condition – being a patient! I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as an infant, so really, life made the decision for me: I was going to be in healthcare in some capacity.
I went to college and studied biomedical engineering with the intention of going into medicine, but actually got really sick during my undergraduate degree. The night before my genetics midterm I remember laying in my bed, so sick that I knew I couldn’t make it to the midterm.
I had a moment of realization that this was my life. I was going to have these unexpected ups and downs, so maybe medicine and residency wasn’t the right fit for me personally. Not to say that those with chronic conditions can’t go do these things, but it wasn’t the path I decided to pursue.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, was that difficult to come to terms with?
JEN: I think it helped that I’d seen the medical system from a different perspective– my mother is in medicine and I have my own experiences as a patient– so I was keen on the limitations of what a physician can actually even practice. For example, my doctors might want to prescribe me a certain medication, but couldn’t because I had to go fail some other medications first. I’d seen a lot of dysfunction and a lot of burnout, so I thought, “Maybe there’s another way for me to help.”
The other influence in my professional trajectory was that I was a dancer, and I studied dance in college. The sentiment in the ‘80s was that kids with arthritis shouldn’t be physically active, so I wasn’t allowed to play soccer or do gymnastics — the two things that kids in my town did. But my parents still wanted me to have an activity to participate in, so they enrolled me in dance, thinking that wasn’t going to hurt my joints. We know now that activity is actually a treatment modality for people with arthritis, so I do believe it contributed to why my joints have done relatively well. And I fell in love with dance, so I decided to continue and major in it during college.
INTERVIEWER: And did that then tie into your study of ergonomics?
JEN: Exactly, so all of this came from really wanting to understand more about the human body, and why we think there are limitations based on somebody’s physical disabilities or conditions, but yet, we can actually do things if we can cater to what works best for us.
For example, as a dance major, if you were injured, or sick or rehabilitating an injury, we were actually required to do Pilates. And when I took Pilates, I really took to how I could work different joints and different muscle groups in ways that were appropriate to a specific limb or injury. It really made me think: there is always a way that we can accomplish a task, it just might look different to different people. And so that kind of led me there.
I started thinking more and more about how we could do better by people if we designed a world that promoted them and advanced what they want to do, rather than saying they couldn’t do things. This led me away from pure medicine and down the human-centered design path, and I studied biomechanics and human factors. And
within that, I decided that I wanted to do more research.
My PhD is technically Environmental Medicine, which is very broad. People think that I studied climate change, that’s not the case. I studied Environmental Medicine in the context of the environment around the patient, specifically what we call the patient-centered outcomes.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me more about that?
JEN: I was really most interested in all the other things that affect somebody’s health and health behaviors outside of the clinical factors that we typically study. To understand someone’s health we need to look beyond just the labs, and instead look at the impact of side effects –such as fatigue– as well as social support, access to care, financial burden, self-efficacy, meaning they believe they can do what’s needed to be done, and other factors like this. These are the same thing your Health Advisors focus on with your members – it’s the biopsychosocial model to seeing somebody’s health rather than just what it might show up on at a lab report.
INTERVIEWER: Very cool. And has your perspective changed at all from the consulting work where you’re working with these different industry players? How’s that informed how you see healthcare?
JEN: Well, given my perspective as a patient, going into healthcare I immediately started noticing that everyone wanted to design and make things better for patients, yet they weren’t talking to them. How do you improve the patient experience if you don’t even bother to ask patients what they are experiencing and what needs fixing?
No wonder the industry is all mucked up when we’re just kind of throwing things at the wall and seeing if any of them are relevant to improve patient care or the patient outcomes. Healthcare also has so many stakeholders, which just makes it ripe for confusion. We have to do better working collaboratively. I’ve had experience as both a patient and professional, and I know we will do better if we all work together.
INTERVIEWER: Awesome. Well that’s all we have time for today – but let’s do another chat soon about the innovative ways you’re bringing the patient voice to the table!
JEN: Absolutely, always happy to talk about the patient voice.
In addition to Part 2 of this conversation, check these out:
- Check out Savvy Coop’s YouTube Channel! Jen’s playlist of “Savvy Chats” and Puppet Shows are a must-see.
- Click here to download our white paper on Treating the Whole Person to learn more about the social determinants of health – or in Jen’s words, what’s going on “beyond the labs”.