Rooted in Reality

By: Tim Turnham, PhD


I remember sitting on a sagging sofa in a tiny house just outside a small town in south Mississippi, visiting an elderly widow whose only child had not come to see her in years.  Her mangy, smelly dog decided I was friendly and jumped into my lap, shedding hair all over my dark suit.  The widow and I sipped watery tea and snacked on stale cookies as she talked about being diagnosed with breast cancer.  She had no money to travel to a big cancer hospital so she was seeing a doctor at a tiny, ill-equipped community clinic.  Even then she struggled to find someone to drive her to her chemotherapy sessions.

In my time as an advocate I have come to know many, many cancer patients from all over the world.  Through dozens of visits in houses small and large, in mobile homes and even an abandoned school bus now housing a family of four, I listened to cancer patients talk about their lives.

None of this was big picture, or strategic. These patients will never have their story told in the newspaper, or speak at a cancer fundraising event. They are not likely to join an online cancer community or respond to a survey sent by some big-city market research firm.

Nevertheless, they are part of the cancer community. Cancer has turned their life down and inside out.  They have the same fears and uncertainties, the same hopes and dreams as the star patient at the most prestigious comprehensive cancer center.

In other places and times, I have been honored to be part of high-profile efforts to impact health care. I sat in on some early meetings of Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot program and discussed how IBM’s Watson program could analyze millions of pieces of data from the VA hospital system.  In a meeting with top federal officials and leading nonprofits, I discussed the impact of personalized medicine—both the opportunities and the costs.  I love the stimulating conversation and ideas that come from these meetings.

We can and should do big-picture thinking, and work strategically in the fight against cancer. We must also remember, however, that the reason behind all this elegant work is the patient, even (or perhaps especially) when the patient is a dirt-poor, uneducated, lonely woman living at the edge of a tiny, forgotten town with her mangy, smelly dog.  Who, by the way, outlived her breast cancer.

I am pleased to be joining the team at MK&A, a firm with a long tradition of engaging in smart, strategic work while remaining firmly grounded in real issues faced by real patients. I am convinced that helping companies build strong internal advocacy strategies along with meaningful external collaborations with patients, patient organizations and professional societies offers me the opportunity to have a greater impact on patients’ lives.

To discuss how we can incorporate the perspective of patients like this drop me a note at tturnham@mkanda.com.




About the Author:

Tim Turnham, PhD

Tim Turnham, PhD is a vice president at MK&A. Tim approaches patient engagement with the conviction that patients who are well informed and well supported live longer and better.  He has a record of success in finding mutually beneficial connections between industry and patient advocacy groups to help achieve this goal. Tim has worked in pediatrics, HIV/AIDS, disabilities, and oncology, maximizing the insight and value that patient advocacy groups and industry can achieve through collaboration.

After college, Tim worked in medical research laboratories while studying theology in preparation for being a pastor-a position he held for over a decade.  The combined background in science and ministry served him well  in his role over the past 20 years as senior executive at nonprofit advocacy groups, clinics, and hospitals.  Tim has spent countless hours listening to patients and caregivers, and helping give voice to their experiences. In addition, Tim has worked closely with academic researchers, including convening two summit meetings that resulted in white papers on critical issues of cancer treatment.

Tim holds a BA in microbiology, an MDiv, and a PhD in biblical ethics.

You may contact Tim at  tturnham@mkanda.com.

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