Family physicians who care for underserved patients

One of the ugliest incidents in my career occurred during my faculty development fellowship year, when I spent two days each week seeing patients at several federally qualified community health centers in inner city Washington, DC. Midway through the year, I was transferred from a health center that served an African-American population to one serving a mostly Spanish-speaking clientele.

Nearly all of the permanent primary care clinicians at this health center spoke fluent Spanish, and I saw it as a sign of the center’s desperate need for clinicians that they willingly accepted a family physician who had never managed to learn enough Spanish to ask any questions more complex than “where does it hurt?”

The plan had been for me to be paired with a Spanish-speaking medical assistant who could also function as an interpreter, but due to staffing changes and the reality that medical assistants have many responsibilities, that never worked out. So I found myself spending hours using awkward telephone translation services, pressing patients’ relatives and children into service as translators (a big no-no), or as a last resort, deliberately avoiding picking up the medical charts of patients who knew no English.

None of these actions endeared me to the other clinicians, but one in particular, a short-tempered Latino family doctor who had worked at the health center for many years, seemed offended by my presence from the outset. After weeks of giving me the silent treatment, one day he literally exploded and told me in no uncertain terms that I had absolutely no business seeing patients there (especially “his” patients) when I couldn’t speak the language, and that the constant influx of temporary physicians from academic medical centers like me who moved on to other things was what gave health centers for the underserved a reputation for poor quality.

Several years removed from that professionally and personally distressing incident, I came across a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine that examined the relationship between proportions of minority patients served by 96 U.S. primary care clinics and elements of their workplace and organizational environments. Consistent with my experience, clinics that served at least a 30% minority population reported that their patients often spoke little or no English, had lower health literacy, and had more complex and chronic medical problems such as depression, pain syndromes, and substance abuse. To address these challenges, these clinics had access to fewer resources (medical supplies, referral specialists, pharmacy services, and examination rooms) and were more likely to have “chaotic” work environments and low job satisfaction than clinics serving less than 30% minorities. The authors concluded that primary health care for minority populations in this country is both “separate and unequal,” and suggested that health disparities may be due as much to disadvantages built into the provision of care as to patient-centered factors.

And recently, JAMA published an important analysis of Health Plan Employer and Data Information Set (HEDIS) performance measures of 162 primary care physicians in a practice-based research network in eastern Massachusetts. The authors concluded: “Among primary care physicians practicing within the same large academic primary care system, patient panels with greater proportions of underinsured, minority, and non-English-speaking patients were associated with lower quality rankings for primary care physicians.”

My hat is off to family physicians and other primary care clinicians who care for underserved patients. Every day, you make do with less, manage more challenging clinical problems, and to add insult to injury, apparently are now getting dinged on the quality of care you provide. There is no excuse for the way I was treated in that clinic many years ago, but I have come to understand my antagonist’s “us versus them” mentality as a coping mechanism. Making a real dent in health disparities will require more than expanding Medicaid coverage and building new community health centers. Creative programs are also needed to attract top-flight family physicians to practices for the underserved and keep them there by providing the necessary support for them to thrive, professionally and emotionally.

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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