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The University Medical Center and Student Government held a forum Monday to address student and community concerns about the Urban Health Initiative’s (UHI), impact on local access to health care.
The UHI helps South Side residents find care not just at the Medical Center itself, but also at partner hospitals and community health care centers around the area. The program tries to find a “medical home” for its patients, where they can get preventative care and treatment. Critics have accused the program of outsourcing routine health services for patients without the means to pay.
The panelists were all employees at the Medical Center: Dr. Eric Whitaker, executive vice president for strategic affiliations and associate dean for community-based research, Dr. Thomas Fisher, an ER doctor who works on the UHI, and Dr. Dan Johnson, section chief in academic pediatrics and a representative of UHI's pediatric department.
Presenting the goals and achievements of the UHI, Whitaker noted his personal connection to the South Side and to the quality of local health care. “The thing that I’m most proud of is that I am a South Sider by birth and now by choice. This is not an academic exercise; this is where I live,” he said.
Whitaker said the University has been working on improving its image in the neighborhood, but it won’t happen overnight.
“It has only been six years since Michelle Obama established an office of community affairs,” he said. “Clearly the University of Chicago has had a challenging relationship with the neighborhood around it, but I do believe we have the opportunity to change.”
Whitaker said the South Side has lost five or six hospitals in recent years, partly because of the Medical Center’s reputation for providing superior care. Whitaker said the Center is now aware that “the community is at the center of it, and it is mindful that we on this campus don’t have all of the answers. Now we’re very conscious of how what we do effects the hospitals surrounding us.”
Johnson acknowledged a trade-off between remaining at the forefront of medicine and offering a full range of community services.
“Not every hospital can provide the tertiary and quaternary services the University of Chicago provides,” Johnson said. “It costs a great deal of money to maintain that. It’s a hub and spokes system—the hub is the education and research,” he said.
The UHI connects a network of 25 community health care centers and one private physician with the UCMC. University doctors practice in many of these other hospitals and centers, and patients who come to the Medical Center may be recommended for care elsewhere based on the acuteness or complexity of their illness. Other initiatives encourage Medical Center graduates to practice on the South Side.
Regarding these partnerships, Dr. Johnson said, “Patients can go right in a single door and can get registered. Patients like going there. They find it easier and simpler. Still, we need more accountability. That is very clear. We want to see that we are improving access for care.”
In his presentation, Whitaker also addressed the controversy surrounding UHI. “I have complicated feelings about the Medical Center. I wouldn’t have come here if Michelle Obama hadn’t twisted my arm,” he said. He added that UHI turned into a political issue after Barack Obama began his campaign for presidency.
The panel responded to questions on the 13 percent of ER patients at the Medical Center who leave without being seen. “Nobody gets turned away,” Fisher said. “ER overcrowding is a national issue. The fundamental issue is a supply-demand mismatch. The place where people are not allowed to get turned away from based on ability to pay is the ER.”
The Medical Center now has a lack of patient capacity but is attempting to change that by giving patients the option of going to partner community medical centers for care, Fisher said.
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly stated that the forum was held solely by the Medical Center; it was held in partnership with Student Government. It also misreported Dr. Dan Johnson's title.