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How Physicians Can Influence a Community’s Health

By Megan Krischke, contributor

A physician’s job is demanding and rigorous, which can make it difficult to even consider doing more than attending to your own patients and practice. But some doctors, like Leslie Brooks, MD, and Richard Bryce, DO, have found deep satisfaction by going above and beyond.

Both have found ways to positively impact their community’s health and improve patient outcomes through innovative programs and partnerships.

Richard Bryce, DO

“Most doctors went into medicine because they want to help people,” said Bryce, chief medical officer at Community Health and Social Services (CHASS) in Detroit, Michigan. “And it is true, a one-on-one interaction with a patient is as important as anything, and taking that next step toward bettering the community may seem like a daunting task.”

“But if you are a physician who wants to make an impact, in the end, broadening your work will be very gratifying,” he asserted.

Type 2 diabetes is a common health problem in southwest Detroit, where Bryce practices. His initial efforts to make a difference in his patients’ lives began by making the typical recommendations of medication and changes in diet and exercise. But as he explored the barriers people were facing to make those changes, some patterns emerged.

“Most people in the neighborhood associated exercise with running or walking outside and patients would say things to me like, ‘I can’t go out because someone was murdered on my block last week.’ They didn’t feel safe exercising outside. And yet, if you do an internet search for ‘gyms in southwest Detroit’ you will find that there aren’t any.  There are zero places in that part of the city to run on a treadmill or lift weights,” Bryce explained.

Additionally, Bryce’s patients have limited access to vegetables—many of them are doing their grocery shopping at convenience stores because it is difficult to get to supermarkets. And even when patients have access to vegetables, they often didn’t grow up eating them and so they are unfamiliar with how to the cook them and incorporate them into meals.

Bryce and others at CHASS have responded to these needs by creating an annual community 5K race, a kids’ boot camp to fight childhood obesity, and program called Fresh Prescriptions that encourages providers to “prescribe” fruits and vegetables to patients.

“Fresh Prescriptions is trying to motivate people in multiple ways,” Bryce explained. “We have started a farmers’ market at the clinic and patients can get $10 in free fruits and veggies every time they come. And because the prescription is written by the provider, itt shows patients that what they eat is as important as their meds.”

“The clinic and the farmers market also have demo kitchens to teach people how to use the veggies in a meal,” he continued. The farmers’ market originally ran for just four weeks in the summer, but generous funding from the American Osteopathic Foundation and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan has extended the program to eight weeks this year.

“My role as a physician is to try to improve the health of my patients, and many of those things are medically based, but more often than not they are associated with things I learned nothing about school--like how to set up a community 5K. But that gives me more motivation because if I don’t figure it out, no one else is going to.”

“Each time I help an individual find a resource they didn’t have and they become healthier and happier as a result, that makes me want to do it for the next person,” he explained.

Lesley Brooks, MD

As the chief medical officer for Sunrise Community Health in Colorado, Lesley Brooks, MD, feels her life has come full circle and that she is in the right place to make a difference.

The same “War on Poverty” legislation in the early 1960s that created community health centers also created Head Start, Community Action Programs and Legal Services. 

“My mother worked for Community Action Programs, my father was a lawyer with Legal Services, my sisters and I attended Head Start and my family received care at a community health center,” explained Brooks. “I couldn’t have found a more perfect job than working in a community health center.”

For many years, Brooks thought the outlet for her passion for justice would be becoming a lawyer, but a stint in the Peace Corps convinced her that providing medical care to the underserved was a foundational step toward justice that preceded even the law.

Today, she is working to better her community and promote justice both through her day job and by serving as the co-chair of the provider education work group for the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

“Through my job as the CMO of Sunrise Community Health, I influence my community by building a workforce that says to our community ‘Come, please come, and we will partner with you.’ All health care services need workforces that are generous and expansive in their thinking.  We need to give people permission to do the best that they can—that is important no matter how resourced they are.”

When asked how she fits it all in, Brooks replied, “I’m a busy girl. I do a lot of my volunteer work in the evening; I fit it in before work with 7 am conference calls. I also have a lot of help. When I identify a need, I ask, ‘Who can help with this? Who can I build a community of leadership with?’”

“I’ve also had to learn to say, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ because I want to also be available to my husband and children. If I didn’t have all these layers to my job it would be less fulfilling.”

“As a physician, you have to find what you are passionate about—the business of medicine is too long and too hard to not have something that gets you out of bed in the morning.  When you find that, it becomes natural to reach out to your community and provide advocacy or expertise,” Brooks encouraged.  

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