Poor Health: When Poverty Becomes Disease

By Claire Conway on January 06, 2016

Talmadge King Jr., MD, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, tells the story of an ER physician who had lost a document and was searching frantically for it in the garbage bins behind Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. What he found instead in the mountain of rubbish were crumpled prescription slips that patients had tossed in hospital trash cans throughout the week.

“Going forward, the conversations that ER doctor had with his patients changed. They became, ‘Well, you need these drugs. Which can you afford? How can I help?’” relates King. “Often it’s not that the patients aren’t adhering to advice. It’s that they can’t pay for the drugs, didn’t understand why they should take them, or simply that they did not feel the doctor even listened to them.”

Poverty collides with health every day at UCSF, compelling clinicians and scientists to engineer ways to disentangle the two, one complexity at a time. It’s the nurse trying to help a mom living in a single-room-occupancy hotel find refrigeration for her son’s antibiotic before an infection ruptures his second eardrum. Or the scientist gathering data on the toxic effects of stress on unborn children. Or the dentist trying to salvage the graying teeth in a toddler’s mouth – poverty’s most obvious portal.

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