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Life Faces of Health Care brings Canadians' stories into the health policy picture

Parents of a four-year-old battling a rare form of cancer reflect on how polished their doctor was giving them heartbreaking news. A transgender male explains how he felt stigmatized by the health-care system when looking for help. A daughter brings her ailing mother home to die. And a nurse practitioner with a positive outlook visits inner-city patients.

These are some of the personal accounts profiled on the website Faces of Health Care, a recent initiative that seeks to bring the human face back into the health policy picture. Inspired by the work of photographer Brandon Stanton on his popular blog Humans of New York, the photojournalism project uses portraits and quotes of patients and practitioners to tell the stories of Canadians who interact with the health care system.

'When you go into someone’s home, it is a different power relationship. I am a guest. You have to win them over. A lot of the folks who are living at home in dire circumstances, or in supported circumstances, are there because they are fiercely independent. So, they don’t like this bossy nurse telling them what to do': Lorna, a nurse practitioner (Photos by Jeremy Petch)

“Health care is an industry about people,” says Andreas Laupacis, the creator of the website, which launched in July. “But there’s a strain on the ways patients interact with their health-care providers and the people that create the policies and manage the system are sometimes so removed from the reality of it.”

Dr. Laupacis is in the health field, as the executive director of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital, board chair of Health Quality Ontario and a board member of Cancer Care Ontario.

'I walked into the office of my old family doctor and told her I was trans and that I wanted surgery. She said she would look into it but I could tell she was not very comfortable with it. Within a couple weeks, she called me at my home."I’m really sorry but I just don’t know what to do with you" were her words:' Lucas

The new site is linked to HealthyDebate.ca, an online health policy magazine and another one of Dr. Laupacis’s creations.

As technology is further integrated in the system, he says, there are fewer face-to-face interactions, and sometimes patients become a drop-down menu rather than a human being.

With a group of writers and photojournalists, Dr. Laupacis aims to tell the stories of the people affected by health-care decisions, both positively and negatively, as well as all the murky in-betweens.

His collaborators are either in the health-care field or have a strong interest in it, such as Dr. Jeremy Petch, a photographer, and Wendy Glauser, the main writer for HealthyDebate.ca.

'I just knew that I wanted my mom to be where she could be comfortable and have somebody with her all the time, and that I wouldn’t have to hear from somebody"Oh, your mom’s died." So that I would be there with her': Pat.

“Even those of us that work in the health care system, we only work in a certain part of it, so we only have an idea of a certain side,” he says. “I think it’s really valuable for us to be able to hear and see those faces and stories.”

Policy makers and managers of health care are often removed from the realities of giving and receiving care, they explain on their website. So they rarely see the human consequences, both good and bad of their decisions. The project is meant to give voice to those impacted by the decisions and spark a different way of thinking.

For Cathie Hofstetter, a woman living with rheumatoid arthritis for the past 23 years, who was profiled by the site, it was a great opportunity. “They’re doing a wonderful thing,” she says.

“These voices really need to be heard. How else are you going to know if something is working or failing?”

'When we were initially told that our four year old had cancer, aside from being in shock, I remember how polished the doctor was in his presentation. I remember thinking how sad it was that a man could be so polished and deliver such devastating news': Kirby, father of Maya (pictured)

So far, it’s been positively received. In a 30-day crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the website’s operations, $15,000 was raised. The site has also been met by positive feedback from people reaching out to share their own experiences.

The plan, Dr. Laupacis says, is to have two new faces up on the site every week and expand outward from Toronto, where the stories are based now, to other parts of Ontario, and then across Canada. Next month, he is travelling to Quebec to interview people in small towns, hoping to encompass a wider range of health issues.

“I’m looking for diversity on the site, different stories from people who haven't had the chance to share them,” he says.

Editor's note: Kirby's daughter's name is Maya. Andreas Laupacis is a doctor. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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