“The decision was made to grow our own, so to speak,” says Joseph W. Gravel Jr., chief medical officer of the health center and residency program director.
The family medicine program, which extends for four years instead of the usual three, emphasizes building ties in the community from the first day of training. Each doctor is paired with a local organization and given time to work on health issues. It could be holding a group meeting on managing diabetes or working with the YWCA to increase mammogram visits for Hispanic women. Residents also staff health centers at two high schools and are given work time for other forms of community service, such as cleaning up a river near the clinic or mentoring students.
The curriculum also sets aside time for doctors to become proficient in Spanish, says Gravel, because bridging the language gap makes doctors more effective and better listeners.
“The patients bring stories to you,” Gravel says. “So, you hear many stories of courage, stories of first-generation immigrants trying to make it in this country.”
Of more than 150 program graduates, at least 30 have stayed in Lawrence. The city that could not attract enough doctors 20 years ago is now inundated with 800 applicants a year for eight spots in the family medicine residency.
Barr, the assistant residency director, says the health center’s unique approach of embedding doctors in the community means physicians are not just learning about the social and economic determinants of health in the abstract—they are witnessing them firsthand.
“It’s not a class,” she says. “It’s what you do day in and day out.”
This approach and way of thinking—born of innovation, led by people, fed by ongoing efforts—is indeed changing lives in Lawrence, day in and day out.