Boston Physician Honored for Providing Free Health Care to Homeless Women
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Present Roseanna Means, M.D., With a 2010 Community Health Leaders Award
August 12, 2010
Why would a physician give a homeless woman a pedicure? “For women with severe mental illness, taking their blood pressure in the usual way is scary for them. We discovered that clipping their toenails and giving them a foot massage would unlock the mistrust,” said Roseanna Means, M.D., who started Women of Means, a network of volunteer physicians who provide free medical care to about 2,500 homeless women in the Boston area each year.
According to Means help for the homeless is primarily geared to men. Women experiencing homelessness, however, have very different needs. “Many women who are homeless become so because of economic problems, and they may also have children to take care of,” said Means. Her own story helps Means to relate to her clients’ needs: she was raised by a single mother and is a survivor of domestic violence, cancer, divorce and the death of a child. She spends about 80 hours each week providing care or coordinating thousands of health care visits made by her volunteer colleagues. “Before I started this, I spent a long time finding out what the women needed. They were embarrassed and afraid to go to a clinic labeled ‘for the homeless.’”
Ten years after starting Women of Means, Means and her colleagues have provided all levels of care, from serving a cup of coffee to accompanying a woman to the hospital for cancer surgery. “If, for instance, a woman is suffering from severe mental illness, we need to gain her trust before we can get her to see a psychiatrist, get her on medications, and support her as she rebuilds her life. We’ve done it again and again. It takes time, but we love them, and we’re there for them unconditionally,” said Means.
For her courage and commitment to creating a model of care that treats homeless women whenever they need it and wherever they are, Means has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award, which honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Means will receive the award during a ceremony at the Foundation in Princeton, N.J., on August 12.
Means points to hundreds of success stories—women who now have jobs and homes and have reconnected with their families, thanks in part to the resolution of their medical issues and to the emotional support provided by Women of Means. Many of these patients suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, and from psychiatric conditions that may worsen if their physical health deteriorates. Every patient—regardless of their housing status—needs to have a primary care doctor and access to primary care services, Means said. “Our goal is to provide these women with a ‘medical home without walls’ and focused clinical case management.”
Means and her colleagues have developed a curriculum to train health practitioners on providing care to women who do not have stable housing. To date, they have trained more than 1,000 medical and nursing students, physicians and medical residents.
Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin said that the selection committee honored Means for her courage and compassion in creating a network of free care for homeless women. “Dr. Means is tenacious about assuring that homeless women receive quality care delivered in the same sensitive manner as the care provided to patients with economic resources. She is actively transmitting that sensitivity and commitment through her partnerships with medical, nursing, and other schools for health professionals in the greater Boston area.”
Women of Means does not have its own clinic, but provides free medical care at homeless shelters in the Boston area. The volunteer physicians and nurses are “connected by their commitment to improving these women’s lives,” said Means. Despite its model of success, however, Means’ program has been hit hard by the economic downturn. “When times get tough, it always seems to be the programs for women that get cut first,” said Means, who is nonetheless determined to expand Women of Means’ focus to help the elderly homeless. Half of the women she serves are over 50 years old; 8 percent are over 70.
Deborah Blazey-Martin, M.D., who has volunteered with Women of Means, said that Means has a special rapport with the women she cares for. “I have worked with Roseanna in the shelters while she cuts toenails, listens intently to the stories of violence and mental illness, and dispenses medical care with hugs and love for those whom others have turned away. Roseanna has faith in these women, and finds her own inspiration in the resilience of those who survive on the streets against all odds,” Blazey-Martin said.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 180 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2010 recipients includes specialized care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients in Darwin, Minn.; a worker-owned collaborative that provides healthy food to a disenfranchised community in Oakland, Calif.; health and social services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in Chicago; a health promotion program for Hispanics in Central Florida; a disease management program for women living with HIV/AIDS in New York City; services for brain injury patients in Southwest Virginia; medical care and transition assistance for former prison inmates in San Francisco; oral health care for homeless people in Phoenix; and a community clinic for low-income and uninsured patients in Albuquerque, N.M.
Nominations can be submitted though late October for the 2011 Community Health Leaders Award. For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.
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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are 183 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.