Location: Charlotte, NC
It is a good thing for Iris Cheng’s patients (including me!) that her physics class at MIT was as challenging as it was, because it prompted Iris to rethink her engineering major. She opted to transfer to Stanford to pursue a career in medicine instead, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Biology in 1984, followed by medical school and residency at the University of California San Francisco. Iris then spent a year in China, where both her parents had practiced medicine before emigrating to the United States in 1959, ultimately settling in rural Ohio, where Iris grew up) to do epidemiology research.
Iris followed her year of research in China by completing a fellowship in education and general internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to wanting to help people and being interested in their stories, which were the foundations of Iris’s decision to practice medicine, she also wanted to incorporate teaching into her medical career. “Education has been a big focus for me the entire time,” Iris says, and the medical students she has taught and the residents and doctors she has trained are glad of that too. Iris landed in Charlotte in 1996, where she serves at a professor of Medicine at the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and as the Director of Interprofessional Education at Atrium Health’s (formerly Carolina Healthcare System) flagship hospital, Carolinas Medical Center.
Another underlying theme of Iris’s medical career (and her life) is a concern for and commitment to the underserved in society. As a primary care internal medicine doctor who also directs Atrium’s internal medicine outpatient clinic, Iris sees some of the area’s neediest patients. “Our patients are the most socially and medically complex in all of Atrium and the community,” Iris says. She and her staff address the chronic illnesses their patients are battling, but they know they cannot do so in a vacuum. Iris says that the patients’ social needs and challenges stemming from poverty, such as a lack of food and housing, “make things complex for complying with medical treatment.” She has focused her career on treating underserved patients because, she says, “We have a system that has not served them well. They are not getting better in our traditional healthcare system.”
Iris’s interest in the social and economic factors that affect health prompted her to become involved the Community Health Division at Atrium Health. She has helped spearhead an initiative to screen for and address food insecurity at the clinical visit (because food insecurity directly impacts management of chronic diseases like diabetes) and offer patients food pharmacies, where they learn about nutrition and are able to procure healthy food before leaving the hospital.
In addition to addressing her patients’ medical and social needs, Iris realized that redesigning care for them also involves teaching and education, both for the patients and for the doctors treating them. “In order to improve healthcare outcomes,” Iris says, “we need to provide a diverse workforce for healthcare.” She tries to reinforce diversity in her work on the medical school admissions committee but has devoted herself to an even more innovative and long-term approach to the issue of making medicine more reflective of the patients it serves. In 2015, Iris agreed to help three medical students start the PATCH (Propelling Adolescents Towards Careers in Healthcare) program, which is essentially a healthcare pipeline program for high school students from primarily Title1 schools(schools with high concentrations of low-income students). The medical students who came up with the idea had served as Teach for America teachers in local Title 1 schools and, as Iris puts it, “saw brilliant young minds who needed the coaching and mentoring to pursue medical careers because they had no examples and modeling in their own lives.”
The PATCH program is a year-long course that allows students to shadow through different healthcare professions, with volunteers from Atrium Health serving as mentors and teachers. Over 125 high school students have participated in the program in the five years it has been offered, meeting at Carolina’s Medical Center on nine Saturdays for instruction on medical fields and opportunities but also on life skills such as standardized test tutoring and college counseling and advising. “We are trying to level the playing field,” Iris says, “by providing mentoring, exposure and opportunity for kids who would otherwise not get it.” Iris sees the Patch program as a great way to begin to address and mitigate the disparities she sees every day in her clinical practice. “Everything that I am trying to address,” she says, “traces back to a growing economic divide.”
The PATCH program culminates with a closing ceremony during which the students share the original community-based health research they have undertaken during their time at PATCH. “Every year they nail it,” Iris says. They ask really timely and relevant questions about things like opioid use, AIDS, and interpersonal and family violence and come up with innovative solutions. “They are seeing it in their communities,” Iris says. “They are living it, so they have great ideas on how to address it. And they are not afraid to report on what they see.”
Iris describes the PATCH closing ceremony as “a great celebration of learning and teaching.” The same could be said of Iris.
More information about the Patch program:https://patchprogram.wixsite.com/charlotte