Prior to starting medical school, I was a research assistant in a pilot program, a multi-disciplinary assessment of community reintegration in people diagnosed with HIV and recently released from incarceration. My job was to conduct detailed psychological interviews and perform neuropsychological testing in order to establish history of trauma, previous psychiatric and psychological treatment, and any cognitive challenges patients faced. I had expected the project to be challenging, but I had not anticipated the depth of my own emotional reaction. This project would set in motion my understanding and subsequent commitment to social justice. It would highlight the necessity of responding to suffering, which includes not only caring for individuals but also combating systemic barriers to health and human flourishing.

My patients felt they had paid their debt to society, but society would not give them a chance. Most had limited education and job training, and during the recession, it was difficult enough to find a new job without a conviction. Prior to incarceration, many had suffered mental illness, including substance addiction and depression. All of them now faced complicated HIV medication regimens and doctors’ appointments despite frequently unstable housing, transportation, and employment status. After release, many met criteria for devastating post-traumatic stress disorder, some resulting from horrifying events occurring while under the “care” of the State. Almost all were from poor backgrounds and the majority were people of color. During the interviews, many expressed themes of detachment, a sense of alienation from society starting in childhood. Some intimated a sense that outcomes many Americans view as basic rights or inevitabilities were never options for them, like freedom from an abuser, a safe home and school environment, or deciding what to be when they grew up.   

How do we interpret and respond to another person’s experience outside of our own perspective? When we consider the background of ourselves and our peers, perhaps even the process of becoming a health professional could be a hindrance to meeting the needs of the Underserved. Consider: to even become a doctor almost demands that we are from a background where adults took time to read to us, encouraged our intellectual development, loved us, and met our needs. Without emotional and financial support and some degree of stability, it would be impossible to achieve the sustained academic excellence required to even gain acceptance to medical school. We are told that we are here because of merit, when the reality is far more complicated.

We are taught to feel negatively toward those who have committed crimes, yet most of us do not understand the complex criminal justice system, including how we decide what a “crime” is and is not, how we determine its punishment, and how incarceration affects not only the individual’s psychological and physical health, but that of their families, their friends, and our entire society. People don’t commit crimes in isolation of social influences. The medically Underserved do not exist in a vacuum of poor decisions and bad luck.

What if our way of life has necessitated an underclass, and all attempts to attend to their medical needs are stopgap measures?  

For me, the process of dedication to attending to the needs of the Underserved has been continuous and ongoing, requiring learning and re-learning, questioning, research, and learning about the history of my own privilege. My work with individuals has informed understanding of the effects of a profit-oriented medical system that is incentivized to treat disease instead of promote health. This is in the context of a short-sighted economic and political environment that values the accumulation of capital and wealth to such an extent that even its pursuit is an act of violence against the poor.

On an immediate level, meeting needs of the Underserved involves helping individual patients develop self-efficacy while also helping people learn to meet challenges as a community. These are skills that must be promoted in medical and other health professional schools; it is much easier to tell patients what they need to do than it is to figure out why they aren’t already doing it, especially in a time where patients will often come in having googled symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment options. As healthcare professionals, we must unravel the previous paternalistic view of physician-as-expert. We are partners in promotion of the health of our patient, who visit us in recognition of the training we have undergone to provide medical knowledge and perform procedures as safely as possible, free from the influence of those who simply view the provision of healthcare as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Some illnesses and treatments are so well-established there is an actual algorithm for what medications to prescribe. Diagnosing and treating high blood pressure comes to mind. While there is still a need for a careful history and physical exam to rule out other causes, many people could read the JNC-7 report and figure out what blood pressure medication they should be taking. Some have criticized that our move to evidence-based medicine instead of intuition, prior practice,  and “expert”-based medicine has taken the human element out of care. A recent study provided some evidence that artificial intelligence can apply treatment rules better than doctors and with better outcomes! What will be the role of medicine as these technologies are further developed? Will there even be one? I think there will be; human behavior is much more complicated than knowing what one should do and simply doing it. I am interested in how contributions from the fields of positive psychology (the study of human flourishing) and behavioral economics (the study of how people make choices) may inform the practice of medicine.  The human element of the patient-physician relationship provides room for encouragement, some accountability and motivation, and identifying other barriers the patient may not have considered. To be a good physician requires training developing these skills. Yet it is not the primary focus of current medical training, which overemphasizes memorization of scientific facts. Knowing the specific enzymes and substrates in the cholesterol synthesis pathway may help us understand how cholesterol-lowering medications work, but choosing a medication for a particular patient is often based less on how it works, but more on how well it works and its side-effect profile.

On a broader level, helping the Underserved demands recognition that all people’s struggles are related. It requires the development of an empathic mindset starting in childhood.Maybe it means that terms like “Underserved” are themselves divisive and kind of perpetuate themselves without solving the problem.

When it becomes especially challenging and seems overwhelming to address all injustices, it might be helpful to try doing something like a silent prayer: May we be able to recognize the common vulnerability to disease, suffering, death that all people share.