When Dr. H. Jack Geiger opened America’s first community health clinics in the cotton fields of segregated Mississippi and a poor Boston neighborhood, five decades ago, many of his patients had never seen a doctor. “There were enormous gaps in the health status of the African American, Native American and Hispanic populations, minority groups, and poor whites as well,” Geiger says. “There was a lot of need and community health centers were invented to deal with that need.”
More than a thousand of such centers across the country now serve 17 million minority and low-income patients. They stand as a testament to Geiger’s pioneering work, but need still remains. The United States is facing a looming deficit of primary care physicians. According to some estimates, the country will be short of 40,000 primary care doctors by 2020. This trend, combined a sharp rise in medical costs, “is not just a problem for vulnerable populations,” Geiger says. “It’s rapidly becoming a problem for the whole nation.”
Geiger says that U.S. medical care is “badly skewed to the extent that we are oversupplied with specialists,” and that “developed nations that have strong primary care networks are delivering not only the best primary care but also the most efficient.”
The GE Foundation has committed $50 million for more than 70 community health centers in 20 states to improve access to healhtcare. This week the foundation also made a $2.3 million grant to the National Medical Fellowship (NMF), where Geiger is a board member. The grant will help train future primary care physicians, nurses and doctor’s assistants at five community health centers in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Nashville, and Jackson, Mississippi. Students will learn clinical skills in neighborhoods with shortage of doctors and receive mentoring from local staff. The goal of the grant is to help launch a pipeline of primary care physicians to community centers around the country.
Geiger says that twice as many students applied as there were places for the first round. “There are few if any programs like this,” Geiger says. “It is this kind of team workforce that will be increasingly the way that medical care is delivered in the future.”