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Los Angeles Times Interview : Reed Tuckson : Taking the Healing Art to Underserved Communities

August 14, 1994|Donna Mungen | Donna Mungen is a producer for the A&E Network and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Tuckson was interviewed in his office at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine

Whether or not Congress passes a universal health-insurance bill, Dr. Reed V. Tuckson will shepherd in another generation of physicians and support staff committed to providing competent health care to American's underserved communities.

As president of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine, one of the nation's four historically black medical universities--and the only one west of the Mississippi--the 43-year-old internist is dedicated to an innovative health-care philosophy that stresses a team approach between community residents and the medical profession. If he has his way and collaboration between community and doctor becomes the norm, Tuckson predicts that in the next century, the omnipotent position of physicians will diminish.

Before arriving in Los Angeles in 1991, Tuckson served for four years as public-health commissioner in his home town of Washington, D.C. A graduate of Howard University, he received his medical training at Georgetown University.

As a leader in public health, Tuckson's fiery criticism of the medical industry's neglect of the poor calls into question the moral values currently taught at the nation's medical schools. But the resistance he detects does not lessen his confidence in being able to infuse a mission of service to members of his medical parish.

Tuckson is actively involved in all phases of the operation at the King/Drew Medical complex. But it's only when discussing the next generation of healers that Tuckson's animated determination surfaces. Where others see only "gang members," Tuckson sees potential scientists, because he believes the least likely candidate to succeed can, with a little encouragement, be the best applicant.

It is this vision that Tuckson brings to the red-brick Drew Hospital Training Program located adjacent to the recently opened Century Freeway. The complex stands in stark contrast to a neighborhood of small 1940s bungalows and multiplexes plastered with cryptic graffiti, discarded mattresses, plastic doll arms and whirling scrolls of trash.

Tuckson is married and the father of four.*


Question: Are you still confident about the passage of universal health care?

Answer: I am optimistic we will achieve the fundamental moral responsibility of a civilized society: to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity to survive free of unnecessary and preventable human diseases. Unfortunately, I had not anticipated that Americans would not rally around this human mandate and that there would be this much apathy. I view that apathy with great concern, and I think this time in American history will be harshly judged. However, the game is not over and there is still the opportunity to gather in support of this basic notion called "universal access to health care."

Q: What is your concept of universal health coverage?

A: Universal coverage means all citizens will have the opportunity to receive a basic, comprehensive set of health-care services that serves to promote their health, prevent disease, receive early diagnosis and treatment, in a cost-effective and appropriate manner, consistent with the needs for survival, free of pain, misery and suffering.

Q: Why is there so much apathy?

A: It is very difficult to engage in any serious public-policy debate involving complex issues. Americans seem to have very short attention spans, and much money has been spent on, and great professional expertise applied to, creating confusion. The other thing is there are many other issues on the agenda that seem to take precedence, such as criminal justice. While I think both issues are important, it is sad that we would make decisions about crime and seem so uninterested, relatively speaking, in whether or not our fellow citizens live or die.

Q: Do you agree with the criticism that physicians were not allowed enough input into the Administration's plan?

A: Early on, perhaps, but that mistake was quickly rectified by the White House when they invited in and solicited physicians' input. . . . I know, because I was asked. However, I am saddened that this profession of people who have taken a sacred oath to be concerned about whether or not the citizens of their society live or die would be in opposition to, and not as supportive of, realizing this goal. We have the world's finest medical system, but despite the breadth and depth of our wealth and expertise, we have failed to make even the most basic of health-care service regularly available to millions, and this disparity is a hole in the heart of this nation.

Q: Why the lack of concern within the medical community?

A: We certainly have not been taught enough about our responsibility to address this neglect. We in the profession of medicine too often reflect the values of the larger society, which celebrates narcissistic self-indulgence, as opposed to living committed lives that bring us to the most fundamental human responsibility, which is to care about the quality of the survival of your fellow citizen.

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