Changing medicine one hospital at a time
But Wang’s accomplishments demonstrate that he was anything but average. Currently, Wang is the Chief Medical Officer at Open Door Family Medical Centers. The mission of the organization, to provide quality healthcare and human service to the community, particularly the economically disadvantaged, is consistent with Wang’s own goals.
Wang described his work as a contrast of both frustration and joy. “There are special frustrations that we experience because we are dealing with an under-served population. But there are special perks, too,” he said. “I have the knowledge that I am providing care that people can’t get anywhere else. We’re not just a vendor of marketable services-I have the opportunity to provide something that is socially necessary.”
Wang sees his family, the era in which he grew up and Amherst as catalysts for his passion to administer aid to under-served communities. “I came from a family where there was a sense of liberal social justice, where it was deeply ingrained that everybody should be respected and have equal access to opportunities,” Wang said. “Plus, the time that I grew up in-the late ’60s and early ’70s-was a time in which many people were questioning the way things were.”
A helping hand
Graduating with a major in sociology and having also completed a year of field study, Wang spent much of his time active in political and cultural causes. “I think that from the time I was a freshman at Amherst, I had a sense that I wanted to decrease the amount of suffering in the world and increase the amount of justice,” he said.
Inspired by this desire, he focused on sociology and American studies classes at Amherst, in addition to his premedical requirements. “From that, I was able to get a general sense of the way society works, the way foreign policy works and how class relations, sex, race and culture function in our society and distribute opportunity,” he said.
By the time he graduated, Wang knew that he could apply what he had learned and direct his passion for helping people through medical care.”I didn’t write a thesis because, at that time, I felt creative work needed to be done in practice rather than in the library, although I had a lot of fun writing term papers in a number of topics,” Wang said. Instead, he took a year off to explore effective methods and models for community organizing.
“My project was to work with a community group in Springfield, where we identified a lack of primary care for people without insurance,” he said. “I worked to identify community activists and develop relationships with funding sources and hospitals to carry on the project.” Ultimately, that community health center, which Wang saw in its young stages, opened in 1982.
Creating new organizations was something that Wang has been doing since his time at Amherst. He was one
of the founders of the Asian Students Association (ASA) on campus and also worked to eradicate sexism in fraternities. “I was in favor of coeducation at Amherst,” Wang said. He cited one of his favorite memories of the College as the graduation of 1977, the time when the first women graduated.
Wang was also very involved with several political movements against the Vietnam/Cambodia War, especially a protest that took place at Holyoke’s Westover Air Force Base in the spring of 1972. Over 100 students and the president of the College, John William Ward, staged a protest over Nixon’s mining of Hyphong Harbor in Cambodia.
The students and president were all arrested and booked at the Holyoke Police Station and then released. “There were a lot of levels of resistance happening. A lot of academics felt powerless and this was Ward’s and our way of disrupting the ‘war machine,'” Wang said. “It was very empowering to move from a sense of dismay and concern to something that would translate into getting people’s attention.”
The Hippocratic Oath
After Amherst, Wang attended Boston University School of Medicine and graduated in 1980. He spent the next 10 years working at several health centers in communities that were seriously ravaged by poverty.
His first job was in the South Bronx at the Morrisania Neighborhood Family Care Center, part of the New York City primary care system. “Historically and legislatively, we had a mandate to care for the poor in the city, regardless of their ability to pay,” he said.
While there, he worked to put together the first family practice module so all people-adults, children, pregnant women-could receive health care at the same facility. He next worked at the Open Door Clinic in Ossining, N.Y., where he currently lives, as a clinician. His mastery of the Spanish language al-lowed him to work with many of the immigrants whom he served. “[It was in these places that] I learned how to be an advocate for a patient,” he said. We had to struggle to get decent care for the people that the system did not want to take care of.”
In 1990, Wang taught residents of the family practice module how to be family doctors. “At that point, I wanted to get past the day-to-day issues of particulars and get into the issues of how you turn someone on to this work and how you make them good at it,” he said.
In 1994, he was appointed the first director of family medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Columbia Presbyterian, known as a formal teaching institution, decided to support a program that focused on primary care. “It was an amazing process to start from scratch; nothing existed and we were able to create a program that was about whole families,” said Wang. “I had a tremendous amount of freedom and power to shape the way that training in family medicine was understood in the institution.”
It was important for him to include, as part of the criteria for family medicine, the ability to serve the under-served. He created the program with an aim to approach it in an urban, interdisciplinary manner. “The first few years were like magic,” said Wang. “We were creating different aspects of the program, creating a residency program, bringing residents for training … it was very exciting.” By the time Wang left Columbia Presbyterian in 2000, the program he had created had become one of the most competitive family practice programs in New York City.
Retracing his steps
He then returned to the place he had worked in the few years after medical school, the Open Door Clinic, as Chief Medical Officer. “There are an estimated 100,000 uninsured people in Westchester County cared for by the community health centers of the county,” he said. “The vast majority of these folks are Latin immigrants, many undocumented [and] their numbers have increased over the last decade.”
The clinic, which has served tens of thousands of people over the years, is a comprehensive medical service. Its scope of services include family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family planning, HIV testing and care and several mental health services, including treatment, counseling and psychiatry. The Open Door Clinic also provides several “enabling services” such as case management, outreach and, imperative for many of their patients, transportation.
Wang attributes the lack of a national health care system as his greatest challenge while working at the Clinic. “The services we provide stop if we go out of business, but, at the same time, if we charge too much the patients we are here to serve can’t afford to come,” he said.
Though frustrated with the difficulty of providing services to individuals without insurance and health care, Wang is pleased with the future of the Open Door Health Center. “I have recruited a total of 10 new physicians in the last year, all of whom are bright, well-trained and committed to the population,” he said.
At the Open Door Clinic, Wang spends 50 percent of his time administering the clinical services as the Chief Medical Officer, and the other 50 percent seeing his own patients. While he was teaching, he continued to see patients, but wasn’t able to spend the amount of time he wanted to with them. “I missed being away from my patients before because I love taking care of them,” he said. “It’s that look that somebody has when they feel better [that makes it special]. You’re working together to make them feel better and to make a difference in how much control they have over their lives.”