Using a website and social media, four Catalina Foothills High School seniors are exploring firsthand how the health care system alienates, harms and helps patients.

The Outpatient Project tells an array of health stories ranging in subject from eating disorders and traumatic brain injury to gene therapy and cancer. The voices telling the stories are women and girls living in Tucson and beyond.

“Regardless of what side we are on, people lose interest with statistics,” said 17-year-old Sruti Bandlamuri, who is The Outpatient Project’s founder and editor. “We need to bring it back to the human.”

Bandlamuri got the idea for creating her own website in the course of her work as a blogger for Young Minds Advocacy, a California-based non-profit that’s focused on unmet mental health needs.

She felt like there was more to explore and decided to move ahead with her own project — a website focusing not just on mental health, but on health care needs in general. She chose women and girls because she says their voices aren’t getting heard enough.

To broaden the project, Bandlamuri enlisted the help of classmates and friends Liz Ketcham, Tai Huesgen and Xiao Glahn to help with photography, story gathering and social media. The four Tucson teens, all age 17, are considering either health or communication-related careers.

The website launched in September and the plan is to continue it after the four graduate this year. All expect to attend university — two in Arizona and two possibly out-of-state. But wherever they end up, they expect to keep The Outpatient Project going, since the work can be done remotely.

“College kids are a different demographic, a different set of issues. It will be interesting,” Bandlamuri said.

More informed

The teens chose the name ‘Outpatient’ because they see younger patients like themselves increasingly involved in their own health care. When they feel sick, they are researching on the internet and talking to other people. They are also on the cusp of engaging with providers through technology without having to go to an office or clinic.

“The patient-physician relationship is changing,” Bandlamuri said. “Patients are getting more informed.”

Bandlamuri and her colleagues hope The Outpatient Project will provide a resource and support system to people of all ages, and eventually, they expect to expand the range of voices beyond just women and girls. One of their next goals is talking to local medical students.

They’ve published two new stories per week since September. Among others, they’ve spoken to a genetics nurse marveling at the lifesaving effects of gene therapy; a young woman trying to understand her father’s bipolar disorder; and another young woman who attempted suicide.

“I now have recognized my strength from going through that trauma and whenever I struggle with my anxiety, I trust in going to the people who understand and love me,” the girl told The Outpatient Project.

Some of those interviewed allowed their faces to be photographed, and others are photographed in ways that don’t reveal their identity. So far, the stories tend to focus on mental health issues in young women, but Bandlamuri said that wasn’t the intent. It’s just what women and girls are talking about, particularly when it comes to unmet needs, she said.

“Approximately one in five adult Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, experiences mental illness in a given year, and many people begin experiencing symptoms as teenagers,” Bandlamuri said.

Not alone

Over time, the teens operating The Outpatient Project noticed some themes emerging. Many of the women and girls interviewed felt isolated and struggled with depression.

There was a teen whose family’s insurance coverage was spotty and she had trouble getting consistent therapy. Others said they had problems with finding transportation to the only providers covered by their insurance.

Huesgen, who is the social media co-coordinator for the group, said she was struck that though they came from many different backgrounds, the people interviewed for The Outpatient Project have had so many similar experiences.

“I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. I learned a lot more about people my age,” Huesgen said. “Stories are powerful.”

Glahn said she hopes more people read the website and realize that they are not alone. “Your perspective on someone shifts when you learn what they have been through,” she said.

Health literacy

All four teens have close family members in health-related professions, so they had some basic knowledge going into the project. Yet, they found that in listening to individual health stories, they gained new perspective.

“It’s pretty hard for some people to get what they need. The health system fixes things that are physically wrong,” Ketcham said. “Mental illness and things like rehabilitation seem less important, but they shouldn’t be.”

They also learned about the Affordable Care Act, and how insurance can control health providers and access to care. Bandlamuri said it would be helpful if high schools would include lessons about the U.S. health system when they teach government classes.

“If people knew more, they might reach out more,” Glahn said.

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email sinnes@tucson.com. On Twitter: @stephanieinnes