July 18, 2016

This health-care start-up wants to be the Teach For America for future doctors

MedServe pairs recent grads with communities to help alleviate the primary care shortage in North Carolina

MedServe fellows Rashieda Pugh, left, Anna Ressel, and Jiyun Chang. Photo courtesy of MedServe

I vowed to be a physician after watching a small town family doctor hold the hand of a dying woman in her living room then drive off to lead a community meeting to save a local free clinic. That combination of microscopic and macroscopic impact was unlike any career I’d encountered, and I was hooked.

Unfortunately, becoming a doctor moves quickly from inspiration to a checklist of mundane activities in a hypercompetitive environment. I found myself in a cycle of standardized exams and big hospital research–far from the scrappy primary care that ignited my passion. I’m a self-confessed idealist and realized quickly I differed from many medical school peers. In retrospect, I was less alone than I felt; many of us had simply been homogenized through the “checklist” into unrecognizable forms of our earlier idealist selves.

Eighty-eight percent of medical students won’t become primary care doctors – a statistic staggering enough to make any rational person question whether there’s hope for the impending primary care shortage. In North Carolina, that shortage is projected to be worse than average, with a 31 percent increase in manpower needed just to maintain current service levels (which are already inadequate in many places). The shortage becomes a humanitarian crisis when you consider that adding a primary care doctor to a community lowers mortality – it literally saves lives.

How could you not be hopeless looking at these numbers? For the past year, I have dedicated myself to launching a North Carolina-based social start-up, MedServe. We deliberately ignore the numbers. We focus instead on the “exceptions”–medically underserved community primary care practices conducting exciting or innovative work benefitting local health. We connect these practices with recent college graduates who show interest in primary care. We offer some “checklist” things (including clinical experience for budding doctors), but the core of our mission is to foster passion that sustains idealists like myself through the brutal medical education process. In doing so, we believe we can show young people a different picture of primary care–one full of small successes and deep inspiration.

This alternative view of primary care seems to resonate with a wide audience of young people, and it’s creating some statistics of hope. For instance, we received enough application interest for our pilot to yield a 15 percent acceptance rate. We’re building a generation of advocates for health equity in every zip code, and people are energized by that idea.

Thirteen recent college graduates begin serving with MedServe this summer. Fellow Jiyun Chang, a recent Harvard graduate who could easily have been me ten years ago, describes MedServe as her chance to address the affordability of and access to health services for people who need them most. “I sort of got frustrated with [big academic hospitals] that do incredible work for people but wouldn’t know if I asked, ‘How do you feel when a patient can’t afford your services?’” She’ll probably have to ask that again when she enters medical school, but we at MedServe hope she’ll do so armed with the perspective of her host community health center, which dedicates itself to serving those exact patients.

Anne Steptoe

Co-founder of MedServe

Anne Steptoe is a budding primary care doctor determined to redefine the narrative of primary care. She is the Program Director and co-founder of MedServe, a nonprofit that matches, trains, and supports recent college graduates to conduct community health work in primary care clinics in medically underserved communities. Having spent time researching workforce development and developing Americorps programming for existing nonprofits, Steptoe is utilizing her work experience in implementing a service year model to help solve sticky problems in health care.