Emergency Medicine Physician Seeks Better Outcomes for Homeless Population
September 24, 2020 | 3 min. to read
Since he was young, Aaron Quarles, MD, MPP, emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, has been interested in the blend of science and service. Recently out of residency and eager to use his public policy skillset, the timing could not be better for Dr. Quarles to be named to Leadership Greater Chicago’s 2021 Signature Fellows class.
“I could not be more excited to get started and interact with business and civic leaders, and people working for the communities,” Dr. Quarles says. “I also look forward to building relationships with the other fellows. I would not have the opportunity to cross paths with them normally, especially with such a focused purpose.”
The 10-month program, established in 1983, brings together diverse professionals from the private, nonprofit and public sectors. The goal is to educate fellows about issues facing the Chicago region and challenge them to create ongoing transformative community change. Candidates must be recommended by the leadership of their organization, and Northwestern Medicine taps one highly qualified applicant each year as its nominee.
Dr. Quarles says the program is a perfect fit for him because it aligns with his interests around social determinants of health, specifically for patients in the NMH Emergency Department (ED) who are experiencing homelessness. “I’m incredibly excited to use my learnings and contacts to advance my work at NM,” Dr. Quarles says. “I am grateful NM is invested in the communities and issues I am passionate about.”
This year’s 46 fellows have been split into cohorts to focus on different neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. Dr. Quarles describes the area in Cleveland where he was raised as similar to these communities, giving him a personal understanding of some of the complex socioeconomic challenges the City of Chicago also faces. Fellows participate in site visits, cultural events, seminars, discussion groups and numerous experiential learning opportunities, witnessing and hearing firsthand about the city’s infrastructure and challenges.
“As physicians, we like to treat things and make them better for the patient,” Dr. Quarles says. But that goal can be challenging when treating patients experiencing homelessness because of the social factors that interfere with medical care. “I can come up with a great care plan, but if the patient can’t afford medication, doesn’t have reliable transportation to get to appointments, or is more focused on food or housing security, the outcomes will be always poor.”
Dr. Quarles has started to look at more strategic ways to help the homeless population that the NMH ED serves. This includes defining and segmenting the population to refer them more efficiently to services that exist. It also includes identifying gaps in services. “NM is taking this seriously and putting forth the effort to make changes,” Dr. Quarles says. “This effort has taken me far outside my comfort zone. Trying to think innovatively about this is both fun and challenging.” While he doesn’t have all the answers yet, one thing is certain: The strategy and approach must be accompanied by humility, an important factor in the balance of science and service. “We have more to learn from our patients experiencing homelessness than they do from us,” Dr. Quarles says.