“The doctor will see you now.”
It’s probably the most uttered sentence in modern medicine. But here at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, there’s a minor twist to this statement that makes a major difference in how we engage with our patients.
Instead of see our patients, we prefer to say that we hear them. Truly hear them. For nearly 40 years, we have been listening to our patients’ unique needs, building relationships and accompanying our patients through the hardships of homelessness. And in the meantime, we have practiced some amazing medicine.
Knowing that every single person matters is a core tenet of our program—from providers with their patients, to senior leadership with our staff. And that’s why people like Alison, a primary care physician at our BMC clinic at 780 Albany Street and at our Barbara McInnis House respite program, have been with us for decades. Alison, who is also BHCHP’s Director of Medical Learners, has been practicing with BHCHP for nearly 29 years, since completing her medical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and graduating from Harvard Medical School.
“Our medical leadership approaches our team of clinicians in the same way that we try to approach our patients,” she said. “Leadership is extremely supportive and tries to help us get to where we want to be, too. One of the benefits of having the leadership that we have is that they really value us as individuals, and they recognize how important it is that we feel self-actualized as physicians and as people. Each person who comes to work here has really good ideas and interesting thoughts about what they want to do and who they want to be as a professional. Our leadership listens to our thoughts and is creative about how to help us be better physicians and have the type of career that we want.”
Here’s what Alison had to say about our work here at BHCHP, in a recent speech she gave at a fundraiser:
“To explain the reason our work really is important, I need to go back to my experience as a medical student. I went to Harvard Medical School and was fortunate enough to be paired with Paul Farmer. Paul and I were the only two medical students on the Cushing surgical service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I had never met Paul, as he’d started medical school years before I did and was just joining our class for his clinical rotations. But I soon learned that we shared a deep love for Haiti, where I was born when my parents were working at the Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles. We bonded immediately, as he did with everyone he met.
“We covered each other’s patients and rounded together every day. As we walked around the wards together, I soon learned that if I was with Paul, it was going to take forever because he had to talk to everyone – nurses, secretaries, colleagues – but I was especially impressed with his interactions with housekeeping and maintenance staff. I didn’t work directly with them, so I didn’t know them or make any effort to know them. I realized that I frequently walked by them without acknowledgment and, to my shame, without even noticing them. But to Paul, no one was invisible. Every single person mattered.
“I had the same experience when I started volunteering at BHCHP as a medical student. I shadowed Jim O’Connell and Tom Bennett, working with patients who often felt that in many ways, when they were outside our clinic walls, to the world they’d lost their humanity and were just part of the landscape, unseen and unheard. As I got to know the organization and continued to work with BHCHP during residency, it became clear to me that this core belief is central to everything we do: no one is invisible. Every person matters.
“I have been working at BHCHP now for 28 years, since I completed residency at the Brigham. And I am so happy to be able to say our core belief has not changed. No one is invisible. Every person matters. That is why our work is important.”
For Alison and our integrated team of more than 600 medical and behavioral staff, social service providers and support staff, the key to the program’s success has been listening to our patients. Many have experienced such extreme trauma in their lives that they have given up on trusting others, so rebuilding that trust is vital, which allows the healing to begin.
“I feel that we do something that other places don’t do as well: we listen to patients to hear what they need, to get them to where they will feel that they are succeeding,” Alison said. “I want to help them to have the life they want. That partially involves health care, but often it involves other things that they may not be able to articulate. They may not immediately understand what those things are: their physical health, mental health, dental health, etcetera.”
Alison’s level of satisfaction with her job isn’t unique at BHCHP. We are currently looking to build our amazing team and we have a wide array of positions available, including nurses, case managers and other professionals committed to ensuring equitable and dignified access to comprehensive, high-quality health care for individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Boston and beyond. We’d love to hear from you. Visit bhchp.org/careers/ to see our current job openings.