Many of the families I knew while growing up in the housing projects of Cleveland didn't seek preventive care to stay well. Instead, we sought care at the ER after we got sick. With no insurance or inadequate coverage, this less-than-ideal approach to health care was the only option for many.
I went to college, earned a pharmacy degree and went to work helping people with their health care. In the 12 years that I worked in that field, my understanding and appreciation for primary care and prevention -- especially family medicine -- grew. And when my own father died an early, preventable death from heart disease and my mother succumbed to breast cancer, I felt called to do more. Specifically, I wanted to help uninsured and low-income families access high-quality health care.
I decided to go back to school at age 35. Having already paid for one degree, leaving a good full-time job for several more years of training was daunting. Fortunately, I received a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) that paid for all of my med school tuition. Thanks to the NHSC, I graduated with a fraction of the debt that I would have otherwise accumulated as a medical student.
I made a four-year commitment to the NHSC to serve in an underserved area, and 14 years after I finished residency, I'm still here in South Carolina because of the incredible need. I'm not alone. The vast majority of the clinicians -- including physicians, nurse practitioners, dentists, mental health professionals and others -- in my clinic are benefitting, or have benefitted, from NHSC scholarships or loan repayment programs.
Simply put, the NHSC puts physicians and other health professionals in underserved communities where they otherwise might be unlikely to work. More than 50,000 health professionals have served in the NHSC since its inception in 1972. More than 10,000 practicing NHSC members provide care to more than 11 million patients at more than 5,000 NHSC-approved sites in urban and rural areas.
Nearly 1,100 more NHSC members are in medical school or residency, but they face an uncertain future. Annual funding for the NHSC is set at $310 million, but it will expire on Sept. 30 without congressional action.
The AAFP's Speak Out tool makes it easy to contact your legislators in Washington and let them know that this vital program must be saved. Without the NHSC, physicians will face greater burdens related to student debt, and patients in communities like mine will have less access to care and far worse outcomes. Please make your voice heard.
Ada Stewart, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.