Woman’s Hospital is in the business of health care, but on a daily basis, the hospital staff deals with another malady — poverty.

It’s not something doctors can cure, but hospital administrators want their employees to be aware of its effects. 

To make that happen, the hospital is hosting poverty simulation workshops, three so far this year.

“We want to sensitize our staff, our employees, to what the realities of life are for people who live in impoverished communities,” said Ellen Tadman, staff development coordinator in Woman’s Hospital’s education department.

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“We want to make sure that we are empathetic and understanding," she said, "and this is one of the ways that we have found does actually help.”

At the Aug. 1 program, which was open to the public as well as hospital employees, each participant was assigned to small groups that formed different families in the fictional city of Realville.

The family circumstances varied — a parent in jail, unemployed or working in a low-paying job; medical issues; child-care difficulties; young adults trying to balance education and part-time jobs.

Each “week” lasted 15 minutes, seven of which were spent at work, and the participants had to take care of their banking, shopping, bill-paying and other errands in the remaining time.

The common denominator was that each family struggled to make ends meet, only a turn of bad luck away from disaster.

And bad luck was incorporated into the simulation — evictions, arrests, theft and a shady character who tempted people to sell what he’d stolen. Clerks at stores and check-cashing businesses shortchanged customers.

Participants quickly found out it was nearly impossible to get everything done with the "money" they had.

“Every little thing is hard,” said Gillian Sanford, a registered nurse at Woman’s.

“I found my level of anxiety just kept going up the whole time because of the scrambling, trying to work together and figure out where everybody was supposed to be and what everybody was supposed to do and how we could do it and how we could do it together and what was the next step,” said Cindy Seghers, a coordinator at the LSU Honors College. “That sucks.”

After four of these 15-minute “weeks,” participants formed groups to discuss what they’d experienced and how it affected their attitudes toward poor people.

“Some people have given me feedback that this was really eye-opening,” Tadman said. “It changed the way they interact with patients. It enables them to have greater empathy for patients who are struggling with lives in poverty.

“I had one participant tell me she was so glad she came because she had lived in poverty, and this showed her that she wasn’t at fault for how poorly things went. The systems that were in place were designed to make it hard for her to survive that time in her life, and she was so grateful that she was able to get some closure on that part of her life where she didn’t feel that she had failed.”

Amy Braud, outpatient clinic coordinator at Woman’s, regularly interacts with patients who are on Medicaid and other governmental assistance. Recently, one who had missed an appointment for an injection showed up the next day in tears. The patient had walked miles to get to the hospital because she had no transportation.

“It was very heart-wrenching to know she had to do that because she had no other options,” Braud said. “I brought her home so she wouldn’t have to walk back.”

The hospital plans to continue the poverty simulations, said Emily Stevens, director of care management. So far, about 75 of Woman’s roughly 2,000 employees have taken part in the voluntary event, she said.

“We’re so glad that we can offer this opportunity to the community at large to help decrease the divides that exist in our community, to better understand each other and be empathetic and compassionate to our community members inside and outside of these walls,” Tadman said.

The hospital has scheduled two more of the four-hour workshops at noon on Sept. 6 and Oct. 10. Information and registration are at womans.org.

Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.