This year marks 50 years of the Community Health Center movement. It began as part of the nation’s “War on Poverty” program, with the goal of helping those in poverty by using local resources and federal funds. Today, Community Health Centers serve the primary healthcare needs of 23 million patients in over 9,000 locations across the country. To commemorate this momentous moment in healthcare history, we spoke to Regina Lee, the Chief Development Officer at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. She shares her thoughts on the impact community health centers have had on patient care in the Asian American Community.
DN: How did you come to work at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center?
RL: I have been involved with the Health Center for more than twenty years. The first time was when the Health Center was just starting in 1971 until 1977. I came back to work here in 2001. I was also on the board of the South Cove Community Health Center in Boston for many years, including several terms as the board president.
DN: How was the Health Center started?
RL: In the early 70’s, Chinatown was very small, maybe seven or eight blocks. There were a handful of doctors with part-time office hours in the community. Accessing healthcare services was very difficult for community members who could not speak English. So a group of people organized the Chinatown Health Fair in 1971. At that time, I was a college student and I had some free time, so I decided to volunteer. The health fair took place for 10 days, with the theme “Bring the Exam Room to the Community.” We set up booths on Mott Street and provided a variety of health screenings. I volunteered as a translator in the mobile van that did mammography.
The health fair was very successful, about 2,500 people participated. For those with positive screenings results, we referred them to Bellevue hospital for evaluation. Since Bellevue Hospital did not have bilingual staff at the time, we were concerned that most of the people would not follow up. A few of us volunteered as patient escorts. We took them from Chinatown to Bellevue Hospital and went through the entire healthcare process with them as a translator. The experience really taught me about the very real barriers that people in the community face, not speaking any English, not understanding how healthcare works, and not knowing your way around a big hospital. Later, we organized a free clinic with volunteer doctors and nurse and started offering services in the fall of 1971.
DL: How are Community Health Centers different from hospitals or private practice in the community?
RL: The Health Center today is right in the community, and we are very accessible in both language and culture. Finances are also not a barrier because we serve everyone who needs care, including those without health insurance. I often read letters from patients. Patients tell us that our doctors and staff understand them, and treat them like family. We see multiple generations in families – babies, parents, grandparents – coming to us for their care. We have many support services, such as health education, mental health, nutrition counseling, care management and social work, which community physicians in private practice cannot provide. Since our doctors are supported by many other professionals, they are able to provide patients with the care that they need to maintain their health or manage their conditions effectively. We are a recognized leader locally and nationally for our quality of care. We are also different from other healthcare providers because we are governed by a consumer majority board of directors. More than 50% of our board members are the Health Center patients, and they make sure that we do right by the community. Many Health Center employees come from the same backgrounds as our patients so we can communicate with patients directly and know how to work with them. We also use data and community needs assessments to inform our decision-making. I believe the Health Center is successful because we are committed to the mission, understand community needs, and are motivated to do our best each and other day to deliver the best care to all patients.
DN: What is the mission of the Health Center?
RL: Simply put, we want to ensure 100% access and eliminate health disparities. Eliminating health disparities is not simply about providing clinical care. It’s also about improving the overall health of the community by encouraging healthier lifestyles, increasing physical activity and better nutrition, avoidance of behavioral risk, and more use of preventive care. Community health is a product of many factors, such as education, jobs, and the social and physical environment – what is now referred to as the social determinants of health. For example, it’s hard for us help our patients to stop smoking without changing the pervasive smoking culture in the community. We work with many partners to improve the overall health of the community.
To learn more about the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center’s mission and history, watch this short video.
Written by Y-Lan Nguyen. Y-Lan Nguyen is currently the Good Health Day coordinator at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. She graduated from the Macaulay Honors College (CUNY) with a BS in biology.