This Doctor Makes House Calls – to the Homeless
Pediatrician Sharon P. Joseph knows first-hand that the homeless often don’t get proper medical care. “It’s simply not at the top of their to-do list,” she says. “Other problems – stress, substance abuse, domestic violence and finding food and shelter – take precedence.”
That’s where she comes in. As director of The New York Children’s Health Project, a program of the Children’s Health Fund, she and her team make “house calls” to 13 shelter-based mini-clinics in New York City via a mobile medical unit.
In essence, the unit provides a medical home for the homeless. Patients get help with mental health issues and nutrition and receive transportation to subspecialty appointments at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.
“The common thread for all my patients,” Joseph says, “is confusion with the system. There’s a feeling of helplessness, of ‘what do I do now?’”
Since 1991, when she joined the project as an attending pediatrician, Joseph has been trying to find ways to improve the system. Then she realized that one of the most important things she could do was to improve herself. In 2007, she enrolled in the master of public health program at Lehman College, now part of the CUNY School of Public Health.
“It’s nice to play Robin Hood,” she says, “but you have to have the knowledge to advocate in the proper manner. Acquiring a master’s degree in public health will give me the tools I need to better evaluate the communities I am dedicated to serve. And it is a significant next step in helping me to attain my goal of being a well-rounded, well-equipped practitioner in the homeless community.”
Getting a master’s in public health had long been her dream, but she put it off until her five children, whose ages are 10 to 18, were old enough to support her decision. “I’m a single parent,” the 48-year-old Joseph says. “I’m in college the same time as my two oldest, so I told everyone we would have to work together to make this work.”
Joseph, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Colgate University and a medical degree from Albert Einstein, didn’t have a hard time choosing Lehman.
“I grew up in the South Bronx,” she says. “Lehman is in the Bronx, and the Bronx is where my heart is. I knew I would get a great education, and I knew that the professors would have a great perspective on the Bronx.”
The Ivy Leagues didn’t even enter into her equation. “I’ve worked with people from various schools, and they all did really well at their jobs,” she says. “I’ve gone to Colgate and Albert Einstein, and the level of knowledge of the professors and the difficulty of the courses at Lehman is comparable to these schools. What I’ve learned from all my schooling is that it almost doesn’t matter where you go to school, it’s what you do with your education that matters.”
CUNY’s master of public health program at the Lehman campus has exceeded Joseph’s expectations. “The professors are like no others,” she says. “I can call on them night and day, and I have; I’ve even gone to their offices at night and on Saturdays. Professor Jane Levitt, the director of the program, leaves no stone unturned in making sure you learn. And the students – the atmosphere is different from when I was in college and med school, where it was every man for himself. We help each other out.”
Joseph served her internship at her own New York Children’s Health Project, where she focused on ear infections in homeless children. “Based on my work, we are working on changing our medical protocol in this area,” she says.
Being in the Lehman program also has given Joseph a chance to connect with the CUNY Institute for Health Equity at Lehman, directed by Prof. Marilyn Aguirre-Molina, that works with 14 community organizations in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn on health issues.
In addition to getting a scholarship from the institute, Joseph also got the opportunity to work in its research track under the direction of Associate Prof. Luisa N. Borrell. “As part of the scholarship, one of my tasks is to support Bronx community groups with data analysis,” she says. “The community-based organizations use these statistics to help their clients.”
Joseph, who has a grade-point average of 4.0 and is set to graduate in May 2011, already has her sights on a doctorate in public health.
“I’ll be coming back to the CUNY School of Public Health to get it,” she says. “I want to focus on epidemiology because in my work, day to day, I have been doing advocacy. Now, I want to learn more about the numbers so I can get funding for projects that will change policy.”