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VOL. 133 | NO. 85 | Friday, April 27, 2018

Schwartz Advocates Holistic Health Through Community

Micaela Watts

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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

When you think about the person who has the most impact on your overall health, is it your doctor who you occasionally see for a fixed period of time – or is it a close friend, parent or spouse?

Dr. David Schwartz, a radiation oncologist with West Cancer Center, is hoping you’ll recognize the latter as more likely to affect your health.

If that seems counterintuitive, Schwartz explains it this way: “The people and relationships that touch you every day are going to impact the decisions which steer your health, much more so than a white coat you see once a year.”

Originally hailing from Southern California, Schwartz decided to relocate to Memphis about two years ago with his family. He made the decision after some “persistent encouragement” from a medical colleague who prompted him to take a closer look at Memphis health care.

Dr. David Schwartz (Antwoine McClellan)

He was drawn to Memphis’ potential for partnerships – a strong willingness of both providers and community members to work together to close gaps in access, quality and results of medical care.

With his career arriving at a juncture where Schwartz wanted to start incorporating a more holistic approach to cancer care, one which considers the impact of a patient’s surrounding environment, the Memphis medical landscape made sense.

He joined the staff at the West Cancer Center as a radiation oncologist in order to create and lead the Center for Health Equity (CHE) in his department. He’s also holds a joint appointment at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center as professor and vice-chair of radiation oncology and a professor of preventive medicine.

His time here has since convinced Schwartz the health care community in Memphis is under-recognized by the outside world.

“What makes Memphis unique is its authenticity, a unique appetite to weave health care into our community fabric and to propel it forward,” he said.

Central to West Clinic and UTHSC’s outreach promoting community involvement within individual health care is the idea that health care becomes optimal when it’s owned and approached actively, not reactively.

“We’re taught to define health as the absence of disease. That’s a negative definition,” explains Schwartz. “Health isn’t the absence of disease, it’s the presence of health, a belief that you’re thriving. We each possess the yardstick which lets us reach for and measure this for ourselves.”

And the biggest contributors to one’s health, Schwartz believes, will be the people and passions they spend the most time with, those that will affect everyday decisions.

“Those are the people who, when you have minor sniffles or a tough cancer, are going to make sure that you get back on your feet. Those are the people who define whether or not you’re going to get healthy,” Schwartz said.

And beyond those in closest relation to the patient, communities often serve as conduits of health care with collective knowledge of resources. For instance, if a patient is struggling with illness, including cancer, their spouse may not know where help is available – but a neighbor or clergy member might.

Measuring access to resources at a community and individual level is a key part of making health care patient-facing, according to Schwartz, who tries to model to student doctors how to “appropriately leverage the assets a person has in their life.”

“You have to model to students and health care providers to ask about a patient’s environment. To see if there are any barriers to health that we can help them fix,” Schwartz said.

Currently, the CHE is working with the Center for Innovation in Health Equity and Relationships in running multiple health equity centers through the medical school. Together, they are looking for creative ways to establish equitable partnerships with the patient, their family and their neighborhoods.

He also knows that at the end of the day, family influence only runs so far, which is why their partnerships based in local schools, churches and advocacy organizations include educating adults and kids on risk behaviors.

Schwartz is most proud when a patient returns to a state of wholeness through these partnerships.

“Medicine is moving beyond passive, paternalistic relationships,” he said. “In Memphis we have a fresh chance to enable patients and families to do the best they can for themselves – and to empower their community to be the best it can be.”

Dr. David Schwartz is a graduate of New Memphis’ Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

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