Dr. Robert Bowers' interest in health, others leads to Volunteers in Medicine service

Dr. Robert Bowers
Dr. Robert Bowers

Champions of Health Care

America's complex and technologically driven medical system is as sophisticated, complex and expensive as any in the world. But within that vast system are those who still put the "care" in health care and who we recognize as the winners of this year's Champions of Health Care awards.Edge magazine, in partnership with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, received more than 150 nominations from the public about health care providers, administrators and volunteers who have made health care better in Chattanooga. From among those nominations, a panel of judges comprised of top leaders from the medical society and each of Chattanooga's three major hospital systems - Erlanger Health System, CHI Memorial Hospital, Parkridge Health System -picked the winners that we salute in the following pages.The Champions of Health Care award winners recognize those who have tackled major community health problems, starting programs to tackle obesity and smoking, adding physical therapy training in Chattanooga, and bringing needed medical services to those without health insurance. Others are recognized for new approaches, strong leadership and simple acts of kindness during their lifetimes of achievement and service.In our second year of the awards, we have quickly discovered the rich talent and commitment from those who work every day to keep us healthy.

Dr. Robert Bowers still remembers the wonder he felt the first time he watched a physician at work.

Bowers was about six years old, and his father had contracted tuberculosis. Bowers watched the doctor take an X-ray of his father's chest, examine it, then translate the mysterious image into an explanation of the disease in the father's lungs.

"That doctor was able to go into a room, and read that thing, and tell my father what he had inside of him," says Bowers. "He could see it, and help fix it. That just fascinated me."

Bowers' father recovered from the illness, but the interaction with that physician stuck with Bowers over the years. The two-fold ability to understand problems others couldn't see, and to take action to help fix such problems: this seemed like a powerful responsibility. And that deep sense of duty remains at the heart of his work as medical director for Volunteers in Medicine Chattanooga, Inc., a faith-based nonprofit that provides primary care to people in the region without access to health insurance.

"You see another human being's need, and you can help meet that need," says Bowers, now 86. "You do something about it."

After a long career as an ear, nose and throat physician and surgeon, Bowers has spent his "retirement" volunteering as VIM's medical director since the program's origins in 2004. The clinic - which is run on private donations and the work of 15 volunteer physicians including Bowers - logs about 5,000 patient visits a year. Nearly 16 percent of residents in Hamilton County are uninsured, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such patients fall into a gap: they aren't insured through employers, but don't qualify for Medicaid or government-issued subsidies. Many are battling chronic illnesses: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and cancers. Walking through the small, bright clinic adjacent to the Eastgate Library, Bowers describes his patients as "wonderful people, who just fell on hard times."

"You see people who lost jobs when their company went out of business, and then they developed diabetes at 52 years old. We see older ladies who got divorced, and are suddenly destitute after their husbands took everything. Some folks have lost their homes. A lot of heartbreaks come through here." Bowers says. "But we can help them through this phase in their life."

Lifetime Achievement Award

Honors a health care leader who has left a legacy on the quality and delivery of health care.Winner: Dr. Robert BowersAccomplishments: After working as a family physician in Dalton and later as an ear, nose and throat specialist in Chattanooga, Bowers served as medical director of Volunteers in Medicine Chattanooga, which provides care to those without insurance. He also was founder and past president of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, where he helped start Project Access, which connects the uninsured with needed specialty care.

Sometimes it's hard for his patients to scrape enough together for bus fare to get to the clinic, or to pay for VIM's standard $4 prescriptions. Even in those cases, VIM's executive director, Ashley Evans says Bowers "wants to be able to solve everything" for his patients "He'll do whatever it takes," said Evans, who nominated Bowers for the Champions of Health Care honor.

"If it's reaching in his pocket and pulling out $4 for someone to get that prescription - he'll do that. One day he walked around and took up a collection so that he could get someone on the bus so they could get back home."

Patients' medical needs at VIM run the gamut, but Bowers' medical journey has prepared him well for the task. After growing up in North Carolina, Bowers graduated from Lomo Linda University Medical School in California in 1961. He completed residencies in internal medicine and general surgery at the massive San Bernardino County Hospital before moving to the then-small town of Dalton, Georgia, to be Hamilton Memorial Hospital's 34th-ever family physician.

"We did everything back then," says Bowers. "We delivered all of the babies. We ran the emergency room. We made rounds twice a day in the hospital. If you were my patient, I'd take care of you day and night, weekend, holiday - it didn't matter."

After five years of this nonstop work, Bowers felt himself burning out. He decided to enter a residency program at University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis become an ear, nose and throat specialist. He worked an otology fellowship under renowned ear surgeon Dr. John Shea before returning to Chattanooga to open his own practice, Chattanooga Ear, Nose and Throat. Bowers practiced there from 1974 until he retired in 2009, adding a long list of teaching positions, committee and board appointments and awards to his resume along the way.

As founder and past president of the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga, he helped start Project Access - another local program that connects the uninsured to specialty care. In his 13 years at VIM, Bowers has drawn on his specialist's expertise, but also his roots in family medicine. Ultimately, he wants VIM to be a clinic that treats the whole person - for it to be a home base, where people can build consistent doctor relationships and, subsequently, healthier lives.

"Everything in medicine now is divided up and ultra-specialized, which means we have never been better, technologically. But we've probably never been worse as patient advocates," says Bowers. "We've split the patient up into component parts. Patients feel isolated."

Because his patients have struggled to access regular, preventative care, they often don't encounter the medical system until their problems have reached crisis point. In an effort to counter this, Bowers often spends a long time talking with patients, trying to understand the obstacles in their way.

"He has a very holistic approach," says Evans. "He'll talk to a patient for a long time - even an hour - then come to me and give me a rundown: 'She is diabetic, and she doesn't have power this month; she does have running water - what do you think we could do about getting her a food voucher?'"

As the cultural conversation around health care reform grows ever more politicized and toxic, Bowers says financially vulnerable patients are the ones who continue to suffer most.

"If you don't have your health, what do you have? What do you do?" he asks. "It overrides jobs, it overrides everything. Because it's your life."

While Bowers hopes for a healthier, bipartisan conversation around health care one day, he also doesn't want to wait around for politicians or industry heads to provide solutions. When it comes to providing care in this community, it's possible to take action now: to see a problem, and to set to work fixing it.

"You see those needs, and you see you can help fulfill those needs" he says, "And then you do something about it."

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