Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Health Care Foot Soldier

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

A Health Care Foot Soldier

Article excerpt

When Dr. Robert Smith was growing up in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, it was hard for most of the state's residents to get highquality health care.

For poor Blacks, it was even harder. Health services were almost non-existent in rural parts of the nearly 50 percent Black state. In cities with hospitals, access for Blacks was limited to Black wings or wards with limited services. Black people, like Smith, who aspired to become licensed health care providers - nurses, dentists and physicians - were required by state law to go to institutions outside the state, despite the state maintaining a medical and nursing school for White students.

Growing up as the civil rights movement of the last century was gathering force, Smith seized on the issue of agonizing health disparities as his civil rights concern. He decided to dedicate his life to improving the health of his fellow citizens and reducing health care disparities.

Today, evidence abounds that Smith has been succeeding. However, the 80-year-old Howard University Medical School graduate recently told an audience that much of the work remains to be done. Still, according to observers who have watched his work over the past decades, Smiths fingerprints on health care service improvements can be found all over the state and nation.

"He was on the frontlines of equitable access to healthcare," says Mississippi historian Dr. Robert Luckett, who is director of Jackson State University's Margaret Walker Center. Smith was "as important" to the fight for health care equity as Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were to political equity battles, says Luckett.

Indeed, Smith, who graduated from medical school in 1961, emerged in the early 1960s as a persistent advocate for health care equity, just as the civil rights movement was getting more energized. In 1962, according to a summary of his history by the weekly Jackson Free Press, he became the volunteer Southern medical field director for the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The committee served as the medical arm of the Mississippi civil rights movement, according to the paper.

Determined to help fellow Mississippians get needed health care, he opened Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963. The centers had a policy of having an open door for anyone in need of medical help. The centers' mission was to focus on servicing the indigent, underserved and uninsured.

Rates for service were set on a sliding scale, based on the patient's ability to pay. From the start, no person in need of care was refused service based their inability to pay.

As he worked to eliminate racial barriers to health facilities, Smith became one of the first Black physicians in Mississippi to get privileges that allowed him to get Black patients admitted to the more abundant and well equipped historically White hospitals across Mississippi, says Luckett.

Smith's campaign for public community health centers has been succeeding in Mississippi and beyond. Today, Mississippi, which had no community health service centers when he began his efforts, has 21 community health care centers with mobile and public school extension sites.

Nationwide, there are approximately 1,000 community health centers today. And federal and private programs support these centers financially.

In Mississippi and the rest of the nation, the open door policy continues, helping thousands of people daily who are in need of health care and cannot afford to pay.

For sure, community health services fill a niche in the nation's health care services basket, as Smith is reminded daily as he makes his medical rounds at the three health centers he is in charge of in Jackson. …

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