Over 25 years, Dr. Jim Withers has been doing street rounds in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bringing medical care to the homeless.
In 1992, Dr. Jim Withers dressed in tattered clothes and began making medical visits to people living on the streets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania along with a formerly homeless person serving as a guide and liaison. He was motivated by the desire to reach out to those who seemed to be excluded from mainstream health care systems despite their high rates of illness and premature death.
By listening to their stories and bearing personal witness to their suffering, Dr. Withers was profoundly moved, and he chose to devote his career to changing the way we care for the unsheltered homeless and other marginalized populations. He became inspired by the idea that this work with the poorest of the urban poor could become a “classroom of the streets,” a unique service-learning opportunity for students and other clinicians to help them better understand and practice a care philosophy he termed “reality-based medicine.”
Dr. Withers observed that because of a variety of internal and external barriers, many street homeless individuals he encountered were unable to access and navigate existing health care services. Since the mainstream health care system’s traditional care models were not particularly sensitive or adaptable to their unique realities of life, illness, and circumstance, the street homeless were being effectively excluded from the care they desperately needed.
Instead, as Dr. Withers learned, they required a more patient-centered, relationship-focused, and culturally-sensitive care model that vows to meet and work with each patient in the context of his or her unique reality and on his or her own terms. This evolving care model emphasized compassion, creativity, and collaboration in the development of individualized engagement and treatment strategies.
To help weave back together with the frayed ends of his patients’ health care with these ideals in practice, Dr. Withers, with the support of The Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, founded Operation Safety Net (OSN), a local organization that has garnered international acclaim as an exemplary Street Medicine program, and in whose image numerous other programs around the world have been created and improved.