Position: Director, Illinois Department of Public Health
Clinical Scholar: 1998–2000, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine
Research Project: Project Brotherhood: A Black Men's Clinic at the Woodlawn Health Center
Clinical Specialty: Internal Medicine
When Eric E. Whitaker, MD, MPH, set out to improve the health of black men on the South Side of Chicago, he knew exactly where he would set up shop: in his own backyard.
The once thriving Woodlawn neighborhood, where Whitaker's grandparents lived for over 80 years, had long since deteriorated into one of the city's poorest—a victim of vanishing industrial jobs in the 1970s. When Whitaker decided to become what he calls "a country doctor" in his old community, he was acutely aware of the high toll of poverty on people's health. But he was distressed to discover another kind of disparity.
"Black men were dying on average at 58 years of age, compared to the rest of the city where white men were dying at 70 years of age," Whitaker says. "And they were dying of things that are amenable to prevention—heart disease, lung and colorectal cancer, as well as AIDS."
Yet at the public health clinic in Woodlawn where Whitaker was medical director, 90 percent of the patients were women. "You didn't need health care insurance to get care at this clinic," he recalls. "So where were the men?"
Answering that question and addressing the problems the answer revealed became the focus of Whitaker's research as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar.
He and a group of volunteers took to the streets, asking black men themselves what kept them away from health services that had the potential to improve their health and even extend their lives.
Whitaker learned that many black men were reluctant to seek medical treatment for fear of being viewed as weak. "When they go into a clinic, they want to feel respected," Whitaker says. "They want to see doctors who look like them and talk like them. They said, 'if we are seen going into a clinic, it would make us feel vulnerable." They wanted to be able to walk into a clinic for reasons that had nothing to do with health care as a cover."
The kind of environment the men wanted, Whitaker realized, was something like a neighborhood barbershop. So when Whitaker opened up "Project Brotherhood: A Black Men's Clinic" in Woodlawn in 1998, the first piece of equipment he bought was not an examination table but a barber chair.
Open every Thursday night, the clinic is usually packed. Black men, young and old, come for haircuts and conversation, and an all-black staff provides free treatment ranging from HIV screening to prostate exams. Clinic attendees also can get other help if they desire: such as workshops on how to land a job, be a better parent or manage other personal problems.
Though Whitaker left the clinic in 2003 to become director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Project Brotherhood is still going strong. And the lessons learned there translate surprisingly well to the $400 million agency with 1,200 employees that he now leads.
"The Clinical Scholars program helped me understand how to undertake program development to meet the needs of a specific community," he says. "When I landed at the state health department, we changed our motto to 'Improving Public Health One Community at a Time.'
"We can come up with ideas at the state level, but to make a lasting impact, every community has to individualize programs for their situation," he says. "When you find people who are activated around a health issue and give them resources, it doesn't take that long to make a difference."