Expert Commentary

An oath to save lives against a backdrop of growing disparities

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The MAVEN Project, which began patient care in 2016 and has provided more than 2,000 consultations to date, closes the health care access gap with volunteer retired physicians from across the United States


 

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Practicing in the field of obstetrics and gynecology affords us a special privilege: we are part of the most important and unforgettable events in our patients’ lives, both in sickness and in health. Along with the great joys we share comes profound responsibility and the recognition that we are only as effective as the team with whom we work. Although we live in a country that is home to some of the best health care systems in the world, the maternal mortality rates and disease burden among women in underserved communities belie this fact. A University of Washington study demonstrated a more than 20-year gap in life expectancy between wealthy and poor communities in the United States from 1980 to 2014.1 Not surprisingly, access to medical care was a contributing factor.

Poverty only partly explains this disparity. Racial differences are at play as well. In 1992, a seminal study by Schoendorf and colleagues2 demonstrated that the death rates of babies born to educated African American parents were higher due to lower birth weights. Concern recently has been amplified, and many lay publications have publicly raised the alarm.3 Several states have started investigating the causes, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, as well as other organizations, are studying possible solutions.

With nearly 50% of US births financed by Medicaid,5 there was great hope that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid would result in improved access and quality of health care for underserved patients; however, it has become apparent that coverage did not confer improved access to quality care, especially for medical specialties.

Urban and rural poor populations generally seek medical services from safety net clinics staffed by midlevel and physician primary care providers whose tight schedules, documentation demands, and low reimbursement rates are coupled with complex medical and socioeconomic patient populations. While these providers may be skilled in basic primary care, their patients often present with conditions outside their scope of practice. Our country’s growing physician shortage, along with patient location and personal logistics, adds to the challenges for patients and providers alike. And who among us is not asked several times a week, even by our well-insured patients, for a primary care or specialist physician recommendation? The barriers for seeking medical care in rural populations are even greater, as local hospitals and clinics are closing at an alarming rate.

Alumni at work

Communities of physicians across the country recognize both the access problem and the potential to create solutions. Organizations such as Project ECHO, launched in 2003 through the University of New Mexico, connect rural providers with university physicians to aid in treatment of hepatitis C and other illnesses.

As the date for implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act approached, a group of medical school alumni leaders recognized that we could come together and offer our services to address growing health care disparities. Galvanized by the challenge, the Medical Alumni Volunteer Expert Network, or MAVEN Project, was, in our parlance, “born.”

While the concept of the MAVEN Project was germinating, we interviewed numerous colleagues for advice and input and were struck by their desire—especially among the newly retired—to continue to give back. Medicine is a calling, not just a job, and for many of us the joy of helping—the exhilaration of that first birth that sold us on our specialty—gives us meaning and purpose. Many physicians who had left full-time clinical medicine missed the collegiality of the “doctors’ lounge.” Throughout our careers, we are part of a cohort: our medical school class, our residency partners, our hospital staff—we all crave community. With 36% of US physicians older than age 55 and 240,000 retired doctors in the country, we realized a motivated, previously untapped workforce could be marshaled to form a community to serve the most vulnerable among us.5

At the same time, telemedicine had come into its own. Simple technology could enable us to see each other on smartphones and computers and even perform portions of a physical examination from afar.

We realized we could marry opportunity (the workforce), need (underserved populations across the country), and technology. The Harvard Medical School Center Primary Care supported a feasibility study, and the MAVEN Project began “seeing” patients in 2016.

The MAVEN Project at work

What happens when a safety net clinic receives a donation of life-altering oral diabetes medications but their providers lack the expertise to use them appropriately? A closet full of drugs. That is what the MAVEN Project discovered at one of our partner clinics. Enter our volunteer endocrinologist. She consulted with the medical team, reviewed how each medication should be prescribed and monitored, and gave instructions on which patients with diabetes would benefit the most from them.

The closet is emptying, the clinic providers are confidently prescribing the newest therapies, and patients are enjoying improved blood sugars and quality of life!

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