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Healthcare is a Human Right

County Hospital chronicler speaks out
By Scott Warner

He says he honed his skill and compassion as a doctor in a “simmering cauldron of conflict and third- world patient care.” David Ansell, MD, MPH, is referring not to some far away, impoverished country, but to Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, one of the nation’s most storied and notorious public hospitals. That’s where he came to train in 1978 and remained for 17 years, before moving on to continue the battle for healthcare equity for all Americans. Quite simply, he says, “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege.”

Today, Dr. Ansell is senior vice president of System Integration at Rush University Medical Center, where he formerly was chief medical officer. His work involves integrating population health and community health and reducing health inequities. He has been at Rush since 2005, and before that spent 10 years as chairman of the department of internal medicine at Mount Sinai, Chicago’s major private hospital caring for the poor. It was at Mount Sinai that he founded the Sinai Urban Health Institute, a major health-disparity research and intervention center. And he has been a tireless champion when it comes to fighting health disparities in Chicago’s diverse communities. In 2006, he and colleagues helped expose the glaring breast-cancer mortality gap between black women in Chicago who die of breast cancer at twice the rate of white women. They also teamed with others to establish the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Taskforce, a group dedicated to the elimination of this disparity. He has testified in Congress on the “immoral and deadly practice” of inter-hospital transfers of critically ill, uninsured patients (or “dumping”). And he has written extensively about healthcare disparities.

But it was undoubtedly his searing experience at County that propelled him to spread the gospel of healthcare as a human right, and to become an unabashed advocate for a single-payer system. He chronicled his experience in his critically acclaimed book, “County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital,” published in 2011. He writes about how, after finishing medical school in 1978 in Syracuse, New York, he and four other idealistic classmates headed to Chicago to train at County, which had been one of the nation’s most renowned public hospitals. County was famous for providing some of the best medical and surgical training in the U.S. It was also the birthplace of America’s first blood bank, and home of America’s first trauma unit. But County had also been the site of the longest doctors’ strike in U.S. history, when, in 1975, more than 400 house staff walked off the job, protesting the horrific patient-care conditions at the deteriorating institution.

That was three years before Dr. Ansell arrived for his internal medicine internship, and while conditions had improved somewhat by the time he came, the young resident recalled seeing poor, uninsured patients in a waiting room “stuffed as tight as a stockyard cattle car,” and restrooms so filthy he had to go across the street to use the facilities.

He referred to his internship as “white knuckle scary,” but was grateful for the unparalleled training, and the commitment and camaraderie of the doctors and nurses, and how much he learned from his fellow residents. But most of all he says he is grateful how much he learned from the patients themselves, the “high degree of dignity” they maintained during the most extreme suffering. “I learned to become relentless in caring for my patients.”

Dr. Ansell’s Career Highlights

Dr. David Ansell earned his medical degree from the State University of New York at Syracuse, served his residency in internal medicine at Cook County Hospital, and earned a master’s of public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. He served as chairman of the department of internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, and was executive vice chairman of internal medicine at Rosalind Franklin University, the Chicago Medical School. Dr. Ansell is currently senior vice president for system integration at Rush University Medical Center. After publishing a critically acclaimed book on Cook County Hospital in 2011, Dr. Ansell will release a new book, “The Death Gap: How Inequity Kills,” due next spring from the University of Chicago Press.

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