Pro Bono Medicine

March 24, 1995

Among lawyers, particularly those who work for large firms, providing pro bono services to people who otherwise could not afford legal representation is a time-honored tradition. Physicians, sadly, don't have an exact equivalent.

That is not to say that those in the medical profession lack an altruistic spirit. Many is the time we note that a group of doctors or nurses will offer themselves in the aftermath of a natural disaster or epidemic. Floods in the Midwest, earthquakes in California, famine in Africa -- these are times when good people of medicine come forward to extend a hand.

Still, this is not a picture of the profession that gets a lot of attention. Fairly or not, health care providers are under siege these days for leaving the impression that they are more in it for themselves than for other people. In the current health care debate, physicians and insurers seem to alternate as villains in a profession driven by a desire for excessive profit.

In light of this, anything that might generate good will between the public and those in medicine is welcome. So it is refreshing to find that a group of Howard County physicians has joined forces to provide free medical treatment to needy residents.

The Physicians Alliance for Patients in Need has attracted about 60 Howard doctors to its roster. Since October, the group has offered medical services to the homeless, unemployed and others without access to medical insurance.

We have often noted that the overwhelming affluence of Howard County obscures the real needs of some of its residents. Attempts to quantify the problem suffer when compared with larger, more urban places in Maryland. For instance, while the statewide proportion of residents receiving some form of medical assistance is nearly 9 percent, the average in Howard is under 3 percent, the lowest of any jurisdiction.

But those numbers represent residents who are getting help with their medical bills. The Alliance was formed to assist those who don't qualify and either go without medical treatment or seek services in local emergency rooms.

Karen Nicholson, a coordinator for the Alliance, calls these residents the "great uncounted and underserved." Thanks to the Alliance, those who are trapped in this netherworld of the uninsured can get some help.

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