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Friday May 31, 2013

Volunteering Benefits Patients, Communities and the Docs Who Do It

Are you safe?

Have you eaten today?

Did you take your medication?

Those questions can be heard every day in any primary care clinic in the country, but they stopped me in my tracks when I heard them recently on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C.

In town to lobby Congress about physician payment and in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol, I heard those words spoken by a primary care physician tending to a homeless man on the city streets. For Catherine Crossland, M.D., medical director for homeless outreach services at Unity Health Care, working the streets of Washington with a backpack full of medical supplies is a regular part of her job. My brief glimpse of her inspiring work brought to mind how much good primary care physicians do every week through volunteering.

The AAFP's vision is to transform health care to achieve optimal health for everyone. Health care reform has expanded coverage to millions of people who previously were uninsured or underinsured. But even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, the number of Americans without insurance will still stand at 15 million to 30 million, depending on how many states fail to expand Medicaid coverage.

In other words, there are people who are falling through the holes in our health care safety net today and who will continue to do so for our foreseeable future.

We still have a job to do, in D.C. and in all our communities.

The uninsured and underinsured receive primary care in three places: community health centers, free clinics and through the generosity of physicians in private offices. In fact, the average family physician provides free or discounted care to eight patients per week.

The years I spent volunteering at the Stout Street homeless clinic in Denver were tremendously challenging and rewarding. Caring for the homeless raises questions we never had to consider in my then suburban practice. How do you dose insulin when the next meal is uncertain?

Of course, volunteering doesn't have to be anything as time-consuming as providing care at a free clinic. Family physicians make a difference every day in their communities, from making time to see the extra uninsured patient to teaching medical students in the office or presenting Tar Wars in the local schools.

During my Academy travels, it always amazes me to meet the innumerable family docs who make a difference even beyond their medical expertise by coaching youth sports or getting involved with their local school boards.

And the interesting thing is, when we help others, we are also helping ourselves. Volunteering enriches our lives in many ways. It connects us to others, refreshes our souls and even has medical benefits. Research has shown that people who volunteer have less depression and less stress than those who do not volunteer.

So, have you made a difference in the life of another today?

Thank you for what you do every day. Your patients, your community and you are healthier for it.

 Jeff Cain, M.D., is president of the AAFP.

Posted at 02:58PM May 31, 2013 by Jeffrey Cain, M.D.

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