HL20: Jim Withers, MD—Bringing Tender Care to the Mean Streets

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , December 13, 2012

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is the story of Jim Withers, MD.

This profile was published in the December, 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

 "The idea of going to where people were always stuck with me: Joining patients in their reality and respecting their reality."

The value of the house call and taking the care to the patient's environment was a lesson learned early in life for Operation Safety Net founder and medical director Jim Withers, MD.

As a youth, Withers accompanied his father, a physician, and his mother, a nurse, when they travelled to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and St. Lucia on healthcare missions.

"I had the benefit of growing up with medical parents and making house calls as a kid," says Withers, an internist who teaches medicine at The Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh. "The idea of going to where people were always stuck with me: Joining patients in their reality and respecting their reality. As I was trained it became more and more obvious to me that knowing the patients' reality was central to all you were going to build subsequently in terms of a medical interaction."

Twenty years ago Withers was looking for an avenue to teach his medical students "the way into someone else's reality." He had tried medical volunteer work overseas for resident students, which was rewarding but difficult to coordinate.

"I thought: 'I need a classroom that is conveniently located, that has people who are living in a different world, who are in need, and who are hopefully really stubborn people who will force me to bend my skills to their world and not the other way around,' " he recalls. "It occurred to me that street people were good candidates."

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