Chronic Illness

How PillPack Is Using Storytelling To Fight Stigma In Healthcare

Ever wonder why PillPack publishes Folks? It's because we believe storytelling is powerful.

Every person has a story, and those stories can change lives.

That’s the philosophy behind Folks, the in-house magazine of the Amazon subsidiary PillPack, an online pharmacy. Folks’ mission is to destigmatize sickness through storytelling. 

Telling these stories is hard. You’ve probably read news stories about people with conditions that are othering. Though these stories are told with the best intentions, they either put their subjects on pedestals or point to them as individuals to be pitied because they are sick. Folks’ approach is different. Since 2016, the team has published over 500 stories, each exploring the experience of disability or chronic illness through the lens that it’s the people, not the health conditions, that matter most. 

It’s a fine line to walk, but in its best stories, Folks delivers true insight into what the human experience of illness and disability is like. Some examples include a first-person essay written by a 13-year-old girl with a rare, prematurely aging skin condition; interviews with an Alzheimer’s patient about what it’s like to live with dementia; a bi-weekly advice column for people with health conditions called Ask Ada; a recent video story about a charismatic Haitian-American artist using his work to raise awareness of the Sickle Cell disease that keeps him in constant pain; and a moving story from Folks editor-in-chief John Brownlee about his father’s life-long battle with severe depression.

But why does PillPack publish Folks? It all comes down to the company’s central mission, which is to change the conversation around sickness and healthcare. We caught up with Brownlee and PillPack founder/CEO TJ Parker to learn more.

‘Painting in Pain’, Folks’ newest video story about Hertz Nazaire, an artist living with Sickle Cell disease.

What was the initial inspiration behind Folks?

TJ: The inspiration for Folks comes from the same source as PillPack: my days working at my father’s New Hampshire pharmacy. When I was a kid, I would deliver medication for my dad to people in their homes. Over time, I got to know them, and I thought it would be amazing if you could document these people’s stories through words and photography, because storytelling is just such a powerful tool for helping people empathize with conditions outside of their immediate experience.

“Storytelling is just such a powerful tool for helping people empathize with conditions outside of their immediate experience.”

When we launched PillPack, we launched Folks as an opportunity to make good on that idea. We’ve always had ambitions at PillPack of changing the way that people interact with not just their pharmacy, but with healthcare more generally, and we believe storytelling is an excellent way to do that. 

Editor-in-chief John Brownlee drew upon his experience growing up with a mentally ill father for his own essay, My Father The Werewolf.

Many brands publish content that promotes the brand itself, but Folks doesn’t try to sell PillPack. Why?

TJ: Folks has never been viewed as a way to drive customer adoption or even as content marketing. It really is more a reflection of PillPack’s long-term mission, which is to change the dialogue around people’s health. 

John: Authenticity and empathy are very hard things for a brand to earn, and we’ve always felt that we would be bringing doubt upon our motives if we more aggressively marketed PillPack to readers. Because I think Folks offers this company the opportunity to walk the walk, and show that we really do care about the human experience in healthcare. 

“We live in a world which incorrectly views health as a binary experience: you’re either healthy or you’re sick. But this is just flat-out false.”

Because look. We live in a world which incorrectly views health as a binary experience: you’re either healthy or you’re sick. But this is just flat-out false. The truth is that on a long-enough timeline, all of us will eventually be managing at least one health condition, and probably dozens. So being quote-unquote ‘healthy’, meaning having no health conditions at all, isn’t the norm: it’s the exception. Yet culturally, we often view illness as synonymous with weakness.

That’s the kind of stigma Folks was created to address. The mission of Folks is to show that health is not a binary equation, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed of your illness or the conditions you have. And we feel like that message would come across as less authentic if our goal was to convert customers.

Henry Jensen has become Folks’ unofficial poster child since he was featured in How Diabetes Made My Son Internet Famous

How has Folks evolved over time?

John: Originally, we mostly published reported pieces written by freelance journalists. We still do publish those, but one of the things we discovered is that people with health conditions prefer to read stories written by people who are going through what they are going through. So now we publish a lot of essays commenting on the chronically ill experience from a first-person perspective. Many of the voices we publish now have never been previously published, and as editor, that’s challenging but extremely rewarding. Because I really do believe that everybody has a story and everybody’s story deserves to be heard.

What have you learned from Folks over the last three years?

John: Illness is not a single condition or single community. It’s actually many different communities, and those communities all have their own different cultures, which can be very different from each other. Many people with diabetes, for example, find it othering to be referred to as ‘diabetic,’ but people with hearing loss don’t often object to the label ‘deaf,’ because it has cultural connotations to them. It makes sense if you think about it: the experience of diabetes is different than deafness is different than dementia. All of these conditions are perceived differently by the world, and their communities have therefore evolved differently to cope. Which makes it even more important to do your best to understand these communities and their unique cultures when you write about them, or else you will make them feel further misunderstood or stigmatized. You have to double down on your empathy skills. 

A PillPack customer, Monique Jevne allowed Folks to profile her in the story Subduing the Voices.

What does PillPack having become an Amazon subsidiary mean for Folks?

“Illness is not a single condition or single community.”

TJ: For me, it just plays into the fact that we think Folks can really change this conversation. With the amount of reach that Amazon has, both internally and externally, and the number of customers that interact with Amazon, PillPack has an opportunity to not only change healthcare… but also, with the help of Folks, change the way people think of illness. It really is the beginning of what we think is a long-term journey to reframe the services that we offer and the way we understand the folks that we serve.