If ever there was a physician who understood the humanistic and therapeutic importance of connecting to the lives of patients, it is emergency medicine physician Dr. Thea James. Dr. James trained at Boston City Hospital and was an active member of the House Officers’ Association, an independent union that affiliated with CIR in 1993. Today she is associate professor of Emergency Medicine and assistant dean for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Boston University School of Medicine.
At the CIR convention in Boston this year, Dr. James ran a workshop on Treating Urban Violence: Transforming Vulnerable Moments into Opportunity, Impact and Positive Outcome. She is a a founding member of the National Network of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Advocacy Programs. At Boston Medical Center Dr. James runs this innovative emergency department‒ based program that helps guide victims of community violence through recovery from physical and emotional trauma. Using a trauma-informed model of care, the program empowers clients and families and facilitates recovery by providing services and opportunities that bring hope and healing to victims and their families.
Dr. James spoke to CIR Vitals recently about physician activism.
What made you become a physician activist?
I haven’t thought about it much, but I guess it was instinctive. My father always taught me to reach out and help people— and not to be judgmental. If he took me to the Burger King and the cashier was unfriendly, and I made a comment about it, he would say, “you have no right to judge—you don’t know that person’s life.”
This particular hospital—Boston Medical Center—nurtured my activism. There is a culture of it here. As an intern we were taught that we could make a difference. We couldn’t discharge a patient until we made sure they had a place to go, that they had their meds and a follow-up appointment. We were taught to care. And to put a mirror up to ourselves and ask—what would we want for our loved ones or ourselves? Why would we accept a standard of care that was lower than that for other people?
CIR grew me—this union helped me be the person I am today.
What advice would you give to residents who want to become activists?
Many times I was told that I needed to choose one thing, I needed to focus on one area to make a difference or to be successful, but I’ve never been able to do that. And yet—if I look at every single thing I’ve done (and there are so many different things!) I see them as a Venn diagram with 3 basic tenets: social justice, advocacy and peace; peace in peoples’ lives so they can hopefully thrive.
I also found with people that it’s best to listen and find out what they need or want, not what I think they need or want. I sometimes just say to my patients: What could we do today to make you feel satisfied when you leave here? Medicine is so doctor-centered that we forget to ask. For example, we’re looking to expand our outpatient care, but have we thought about evening and night clinics? We’re told—oh, there are so many no-shows during the day, but did anyone think that might be because they needed to come at another time?
Learn more about Dr. James’s work.