(Above) The 2019 Youth Leadership Forum class with program founder Mark Brzezienski, MD
Since its founding in 1883, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and its member physicians have led important initiatives to improve citizen health. These initiatives have included promoting and facilitating vaccination campaigns against polio, working to establish Blood Assurance and the Regional Science Fair, fighting for increased funding for public health, and fighting tobacco use. Through it all, the society’s physicians have led by example and sacrifice.
Thirty-three years ago, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society leaders created the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to improving community health and promoting medical education through creative initiatives. Founded under the leadership of doctors Robert E. Bowers and William Rowe, the Foundation thrives today as it fulfills that initial mission.
In 2006, the Medical Society introduced a new initiative to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in medicine. “The country faces shortages of physicians and many other health professionals,” says Rae Bond, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society CEO. “Our leaders wanted to raise awareness of the fulfilling careers in medicine and provide opportunities for physicians to encourage and mentor future doctors personally. As a result, we created the Future Docs Initiative.”
Dr. Mark Brzezienski led the formation of the first Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine, a competitive program that allows high school seniors and recent graduates to experience a week-long immersion in medicine.
“As a high school student in Pennsylvania, a physician in my neighborhood took an interest in me and allowed me to shadow him as he cared for patients,” Dr. Brzezienski says. “Medicine became my passion and future direction because of that experience. I wanted to provide a similar opportunity for outstanding students in our community.”
Every June, 25 students are selected for the program, which is divided between lectures and shadowing physicians. Lecture topics range from how to prepare for medical school to in-depth glimpses into various medical areas of practice to personal health and wellness. More than 350 students have participated in the program since it began.
“We are incredibly excited that Youth Leadership Forum graduates are now in medical school and residencies,” Dr. Brzezienski says. “Our goal is to motivate, educate, and encourage them, and our vision has become their reality.”
Without exception, students give high marks to the opportunity to shadow a different physician each day of the program. One 2019 participant explains, “I now know more about life as a doctor. I’ve seen how they treat patients, the role they play with their staff, and the amount of hard work put into earning their degree. I also learned a lot about medical students and residents and what they have to go through. I enjoyed hearing what led to them joining the medical field and becoming physicians.”
“I understood that doctors were busy,” another student says. “However, I didn’t understand just how true that is. It is surprising that they are that busy and are able to keep it up. It is something important to know, but not something that is normally advertised!”
Since 2014, the foundation has also coordinated the Future Docs Medical Explorations Program alongside the UT College of Medicine Chattanooga. In the program, Future Docs provides college students and Youth Leadership Forum graduates an intense two- to four-week shadowing experience. Under the leadership of Dr. Mukta Panda, professor at the UT College of Medicine Chattanooga and assistant dean for Well-Being and Medical Student Education, the program is another opportunity to encourage students on the path to becoming a physician.
“We are incredibly excited that Youth Leadership Forum graduates are now in medical school and residencies. Our goal is to motivate, educate, and encourage them, and our vision has become their reality.”
In 2018, the Medical Foundation and Medical Society launched LifeBridge, a physician well-being initiative to prevent burnout for physicians through counseling and educational programming and resources. “While our main focus will always be supporting public health, that mission includes supporting and encouraging member physicians,” says Foundation President Dr. Wayne Scott.
Medicine is always changing, as are the demands for providing and documenting care. Research has shown that rapid, sustained, and significant change in health care delivery is a primary driver of burnout and fatigue among health care professionals and especially physicians.
“LifeBridge is designed to provide evidence-based resources to promote resilience and equip physicians with the skills to confront and overcome professional challenges and work-life balance,” says Dr. Panda. “Through access to confidential counseling, training on how to adapt through adversity, and other resources, LifeBridge seeks to equip and support physicians and their families throughout their career. The program is powerful and profound and is helping serve those who serve us!”
Increasing access to care remains a key focus of the foundation, and Project Access is a flagship initiative that has been reproduced across Tennessee. Project Access continues to be the primary resource for low-income, uninsured residents, who do not qualify for any other assistance, to access specialty care services such as surgery and medical testing.
“Project Access is the largest and best-known program managed by the Foundation,” Bond explains. “Since April 2004, Project Access has coordinated more than $190 million in donated health care services. This lifesaving, life-changing miracle is a testament to the compassion and collaboration between our physicians, hospitals, and other partners. And the fact that Project Access has now been reproduced around Tennessee is a testament to its success.”
Over 400 people receive care through the program monthly, and more than 20,950 people have been assisted through the program since it began. “The strength of the program comes from the 1,124 physicians who donate their care and our sustaining partnerships with CHI Memorial, Erlanger, and Parkridge Health System,” Dr. Scott says.
Medical Society President Colleen Schmitt, MD, with a Project Access patient
“Since April 2004, Project Access has coordinated more than $190 million in donated health care services. This lifesaving, life-changing miracle is a testament to the compassion and collaboration between our physicians, hospitals, and other partners. And the fact that Project Access has now been reproduced around Tennessee is a testament to its success.”
– Rae Bond, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society CEO
In addition to the 16 partner health centers and clinics, other programs include rehabilitation services, mental health resources, and colonoscopy screenings offered in partnership with the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation.
“Project Access is great at holding hands with people overwhelmed by medical needs. We provide intense care coordination to make it easy for patients to navigate the health care system and easy for doctors to participate,” Bond says. “We carefully evaluate their financial eligibility, coordinate their appointments, and guide them through the system. Our patients are incredibly grateful for the care they receive from our volunteer physicians and partners and would truly fall through the holes in the safety net without our program.”
While Project Access, Future Docs, and LifeBridge are the Medical Foundation’s signature programs, the Foundation is active in many health initiatives including:
- Promoting community health initiatives to address the obesity crisis, health disparities, infant mortality, smoking cessation, health planning, and community emergency planning
- Facilitating initiatives through the Regional Health Council and other entities to promote health-related policies and to help expand existing programs
- Stimulating community collaboration and discussion on health policy planning
- Promoting neighborhood health initiatives through the Healthy Living Fund
- Working with the Tobacco Free Chattanooga coalition to promote tobacco-free environments and impact public policy
- Informing public policy makers, which has led to increased funding for health care safety net programs in Tennessee, as well as legislation extending liability protection to volunteer physicians in coordinated care programs
- Providing leadership and editorial assistance for the 2019 Hamilton County Community Health Profile report
- Managing the Critical Limb Fund to address peripheral artery disease and prevent amputations
“I am committed to the Medical Foundation because it gives us the opportunity to impact the health of our community in real and tangible ways,” Dr. Scott says. “Our efforts are diverse, and they have real-life results. Whether providing care to the working poor, encouraging smart students to pursue careers in medicine, or working on issues such as health disparities, we believe our work makes a difference in every part of our community, every day, with measurable results.”
The Foundation is supported by individual contributions, fundraising activities, and grants from private foundations and the Tennessee Safety Net grant program. For more information, contact the Medical Foundation at 423.622.2872 or www.chattmd.org. HS