Operation Safety Net, Free Medical Service For The Homeless, Is What We Wish American Health Care Really Looked Like

This Is What We Wish American Health CareLooked Like

Dr. Jim Withers is known in Pittsburgh, Pa., as the “street doctor” -- a fitting nickname considering he’s been treating the city’s homeless population for over 20 years.

Withers' extraordinary outreach started in 1992 when he, along with a formerly homeless man named Mike Sallows, took to the streets at night with a backpack full of medicine. What started off as two people offering free medical treatment has since grown into a national network of medical students and volunteers who go out to treat the homeless four nights a week.

“Literally, I started dressing like a homeless person and sneaking out at night with a guy who used to be homeless. As far as why, that had a lot more to do with my concern for the way we treated other people,” Withers told The Huffington Post. “As a medical educator, if I could find a new classroom where we could be forced to come to grips with people outside the system, for me, that required a complete plunge.”

Filmmaker Julie Sokolow, whose work has appeared in TIME and on MichaelMoore.com, followed Withers and his team of volunteers for two days and captured their work in a new short film that debuted on the website NationSwell on Thursday.

“There's this brutal honesty about it. You start to find some of their characteristics contagious," Sokolow told HuffPost. "I got obsessed with the idea of being obsessed with your profession, [like Withers]. I was inspired by his compassion and fearlessness and thought about how to bring that into my own filmmaking."

Withers was a hospital specialist when he first started his street service, but he risked his standing in the medical community for the sake of his vision, Sokolow told HuffPost. His colleagues were apprehensive about the free street service -- in part because there were already a lot of issues surrounding access to health care. But today, those same colleagues have been calling to ask if their children in medical school can join his team.

“Some people were negative about it when I started, but they have a lot to learn," Withers said. "I think it’s a way of reviewing ourselves and a new way of connecting with the people that we need in the health care profession.”

Since his initial outreach in 1992, Withers has grown his nightly service into the nonprofit Operation Safety Net, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and one of the nation’s first full-time street medicine programs. The team has treated about 10,000 homeless people in Pittsburgh and provided 900 with housing.

“The first thing that hit me was the number of people squirreled away under bridges and campsites. The level of fear and bitterness towards the medical community and general community hit me full blast," Withers said. "As I began to look at the medical issues, I began to realize there were people with bad wounds, unhealed ulcers, cancers and all kinds of things that weren't being addressed."

When he started the service, Withers used to fill his backpack with a few medical supplies and free medicine from drug reps visiting the hospital he worked at -- but now, from the modest financial support they receive through donors, he's able to afford more supplies.

“It’s kind of an ongoing adventure to figure out how to make something like this work," he told HuffPost. "When possible, we try to get people insurance. We started from 20 percent of them having insurance to now 75 percent that have insurance."

More than 90 countries have developed similar street medicine units, which is an incredible mark of hope for the future of community health care, Withers said.

“The power of health care goes way beyond medicine. It changes all the people involved: the homeless become more empowered and they get the courage to get off the streets,” Withers said. “I think healing is really the formation of community, a community that sees each person as having value. We’re all in this together.“

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