When he decided to change his career path, Dr. Albert George Thomas had been an ob/gyn at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City for more than 25 years. “When I found myself delivering the child of a woman whom I had delivered, it was time to reevaluate my work.” As a private practitioner within Mount Sinai, Dr. Thomas did not see many patients who were uninsured or on public assistance. He resolved “to give the same care I learned as a resident and attending at Mount Sinai” to those women who are underserved by the healthcare system.
In 2005 Dr. Thomas accepted a position as chief of obstetrics and gynecology at North General Hospital, a Mount Sinai affiliate in Harlem whose patients are primarily poor. He says that the women he treats lead “complicated lives”—many are homeless or on the verge of homelessness, and some have undiagnosed mental illnesses. Because these patients have more difficulty than most in keeping appointments and connecting with the medical system, Dr. Thomas works especially hard to get to know each one. He takes the time to listen carefully to the patient so that he has a full understanding of her circumstances. He tries to make her the decision-maker in her healthcare, “not the provider, not the hospital, not the government.”
Without the patient’s buy-in, Dr. Thomas knows that the chances of success are low. For instance, at North General he sometimes sees patients who have had abortions elsewhere and received contraception that they don’t understand and misuse or disregard altogether. As a profession, he says, “We need to do a better job of articulating the behavioral part of contraception. I don’t accept that ‘there’s not enough time’” to get patients involved in their birth control. To make post-abortion conversations at North General as effective as possible, Dr. Thomas trains his staff members to integrate counseling and social work when discussing contraception with patients.
Dr. Thomas is meeting his goal of “giving back” to the community, not just by maintaining the same standard of care at North General that he developed at Mount Sinai but also by building a research infrastructure that allows him to conduct research “amongst the people who could benefit most” from this work. Since earning his master’s in clinical research in 2006, Dr. Thomas has focused on the prevention of anal cancer in patients infected with the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer. As part of his investigations, he is applying his skills as a colposcopist to learn anoscopy, a technique that will enable him to better serve many of his patients with HIV. At the same time, he is collaborating with colleagues specializing in infectious disease on a funded study on the relationship between inflammation proteins and common sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia.
In addition to his research and patients at North General, Dr. Thomas works at the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention where he screens women who do not have insurance for ob/gyn-related cancers. He is also the medical director of The Door, a drop-in center for teens that offers healthcare as one of several free services. And at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx, Dr. Thomas gives well-woman check-ups and gynecologic care to outpatients who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In everything he does, Dr. Thomas is guided by his belief that “healthcare is not just a business, and it’s not an extra—it is everyone’s God-given right.” He is on the boards of both PRCH and Catholics for Choice. These organizations enable him to “advocate for patients, be the mouthpiece for keeping the limited resources of healthcare spread evenly among those who have and those who don’t.”
His approach to his own work—making the patient the decision-maker—matches his hopes for the healthcare system. He sees PRCH and Catholics for Choice as organizations aimed at giving people all of the scientific and medical information they need to make sound decisions about their health. Like him, both groups “want people to reach their full potential.”