Q & A with Mitchell H. Katz

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 talk, you shared that you believe that healthcare in the United States is built on a middle-class model that often does not meet the needs of low-income patients. In your opinion, what are some of the assumptions made in the current model?

Mitchell H. Katz: Health care in this country assumes you can take time off from work to see the doctor, that you speak English, that you are literate, that you have a working phone, a safe home and healthy food to eat. 

The current model is simply not designed to be responsive for people like one of my patients who developed partial blindness in both eyes but didn’t come to see me until days later because he had to work in order to pay the rent. Or my hospitalized patient from West Africa who spoke a dialect so unusual that we could only find one translator who could understand him.  That translator only worked one afternoon a week. My patient needed to communicate every day. Or the diabetic patient who is homeless and has no refrigerator to keep his insulin or steady supply of food to keep his blood sugar under control. 

That’s one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for us to close the disparity in health care that exists along economic lines despite the expansion of health insurance under the ACA or Obamacare.  

TM: Being aware of these assumptions, what are some of the actionable ways that providers can better meet the needs of their low-income patients?

MK: We need to redesign the system to meet patients where they are and remove obstacles. We need to provide what they need, not what we think they need. The right prescription for a homeless patient is housing. For non-English speaking patients, translation is as important as a prescription pad. And for people who do not have a steady supply of food, there is a variety of solutions. In New York City, we hired a bunch of enrollers to get our patients into the supplemental nutrition program known as Food Stamps. Other health systems are including food pantries at primary care clinics, or distributing maps of community food banks and soup kitchens.  

But more than anything else, I think low-income patients benefit from having a primary care doctor.  They need a team of people who can help them access the medical and nonmedical services they need.  So many are disenfranchised from other community supports, and they really benefit from the care and continuity provided by primary care.  

TM: Having run the safety net systems in San Francisco, Los Angeles and now New York City, you have an in-depth knowledge of the health needs in each area. Are there any striking similarities or differences between the needs in each city?

MK: One of the most obvious differences I’ve noticed is that in New York City, people don’t use primary care – they rely on specialists for every part of the body. I like to joke that folks here have left earlobe specialists and right ankle surgeons. That means there is less focus on prevention and wellness. That’s why I’m particularly excited about NYC Care, our new health access program for people who are not eligible for insurance. We can guarantee NYC Care members a dedicated primary care provider and a first visit in two weeks or less to help keep them healthy. 

TM: In your experience in creating housing as a public health response, what resources need to come together to provide the necessary support, financially and otherwise, to achieve this? 

MK: In Los Angeles, we housed 4,700 chronically homeless persons suffering from medical illness, mental illness, addiction.  It really takes a village to make this possible. We need non-profit developers whose mission is to serve. We need health care providers and community based organizations that can provide onsite services, state and local governments that prioritize housing as a public health issue, supportive neighbors who welcome instead of fear and protest the influx of formerly homeless or substance users to their communities. And we need banks willing to finance these non-traditional construction projects.   

TM: What is your hope for the future of the U.S. healthcare system?

MK: My hope is that people recognize the vital role of primary care in delivering high quality health care to diverse populations.  That means valuing primary care doctors, both financially and spiritually, so that medical students want to become primary care doctors and truly meet the needs of their patients.