Joshua Freeman, the only medical doctor on Roosevelt University’s Board of Trustees, has much in common with the University’s guiding principle: He practices medicine from a social justice point of view.
“I’m interested in why so many of our policies seem to be aimed at enhancing the lives of people who already have a lot, rather than trying to make the lives of people who are just getting by a little bit better,” he said.
Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Freeman writes a blog called “Medicine and Social Justice” and is currently writing a book about the health care industry tentatively titled Working Upstream.
“Dr. Freeman’s compassion for individuals and his urgency to help the underserved of the world is legendary,” said Dr. Richard J. Barohn, chair of the Department of Neurology at the Medical Center. “I think even if Josh was not a physician – if he were a car mechanic or a salesman – he would bring the same sympathy and focus to his life, and a commitment to making the world a better place.”
Last year, Freeman was invited to join Roosevelt’s Board of Trustees because he brings a variety of perspectives on higher education to the University. In addition to being a social justice advocate, he is a professor, medical doctor, administrator, father of a former Roosevelt student, author and major donor.
“As a board member who is an academic, but not a member of the Roosevelt faculty, I believe that I can share insights with the board on what is happening at universities elsewhere,” he said. “I know a great deal about the preparation students need for professional school. In addition, I believe that my first-hand knowledge of teaching and research give me a perspective to ask questions of the academic officers of the University that most of the other non-faculty trustees can’t.”
Roosevelt University President Chuck Middleton will be relying on Freeman for his thoughts on how Roosevelt can further develop its offerings in the health sciences. Roosevelt already has an outstanding College of Pharmacy and thriving programs in biology and chemistry, but the University sees opportunities for more extensive academic programming. “Josh’s expertise will be critical to helping the board and administration understand how to do that work at the highest level of quality,” he said.
Along with managing the Department of Family Medicine, many of Freeman’s ongoing efforts are focused on making the medical industry fair for everyone. “We say we have the best medical care in the world, but it’s only for people with insurance and those who can access it,” he said. “Uninsured people and those with limited access tend to defer care or show up in the emergency room when they’re really sick, rather than receiving proper care at an earlier stage of the illness. Even though we can do incredible surgeries and have innovative procedures, we don’t have a very good system of primary care or prevention.”
Freeman believes that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obama Care, is a step in the right direction because it expands access, but he remains concerned that it still leaves many people without medical coverage, including undocumented residents and people in states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid coverage. Depending on their income level, people in those states may not qualify for either Medicaid or reduced costs on a private insurance plan.
Freeman favors a single payer system like the program in Canada where everybody has the same insurance and pays the same for services. “This way, there wouldn’t be our insane pricing systems where no one knows the actual cost for hospitalization, doctor visits and other services.”
How social determinants, like housing, food, jobs and education, affect health care is another of his concerns. “If your fear is how am I going to pay the rent and buy food for my kids, there’s a lot of stress to your life and that’s not good for your health,” he said. “It’s not coincidental that people who live near toxic waste zones and polluted areas are usually poor and often sick.”
Social justice is personal
To Freeman, social justice also has another, very personal meaning. In 2004, just two years after being appointed professor and department chair at Kansas, he received a phone call during an early morning staff meeting informing him that his oldest son, Matthew, a sociology major in his final semester at Roosevelt University, was missing.
Freeman got on the next flight to Chicago where he discovered that Matthew’s car was gone and no one knew what happened to him. Two days later, he learned Matthew had purchased a gun and took his own life in a motel room in North Carolina. “I’m sure it was the first time he ever held a gun,” said his father, still shaken.
Matthew grew up in Evanston, Ill., and chose Roosevelt after attending another college because the University stood for all the things that he believed in. Smart and committed to equal opportunities like his father, he was actively involved in public housing and transportation issues in Chicago. Shortly after Matthew’s death, friends and family gathered with Roosevelt students, faculty members and administrators at a special graduation ceremony during which his parents accepted his degree with honors from Roosevelt.
“Medically speaking, suicide is the terminal event of a disease called depression,” Freeman said. “Not everybody dies from it, but everyone who commits suicide has it, including Matthew who first had episodes of depression in high school.”
To honor Matthew’s memory, Josh Freeman and Matthew’s mother, Dr. Catherine Kallal, endowed the annual Matthew Freeman Lecture and Social Justice Award Ceremony at the University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation. Held every spring for the past 10 years, the lecture and award presentation are highlights of the academic year as nationally known speakers are invited to talk about their social justice related efforts and outstanding Roosevelt students are recognized for their service. The 2015 Freeman lecture will be held on March 26.
After initially being reluctant to talk about suicide, Freeman now encourages depressed students at Kansas to talk with him. A few years ago after one of his medical students committed suicide, he was the only person the student’s mother was willing to talk with because she knew he had been through it.
As head of the Department of Family Medicine at Kansas, Freeman is particularly proud of the fact that the medical school is one of the top producers of family medicine residents in the country, with as many as 40 students a year entering that field. Community-oriented, it offers students like Whitney Clearwater opportunities to gain practical experiences at local organizations. A third year medical student specializing in family medicine, Clearwater works in a free clinic where she diagnoses and treats high school students and provides medical aid to patients who might not otherwise receive it.
“Family doctors manage the multiple kinds of diseases that you might have, take care of you when you’re sick or hurt and provide comprehensive preventive care through screenings, immunizations and education,” Freeman said. “And, they do something that most doctors in other specialties wouldn’t think of doing. They ask about problems that aren’t even on the table like being safe at home.”
Much of the success of the Department of Family Medicine can be attributed to Freeman, according to his colleague at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Dr. Allen Greiner. “He has helped us grow and maintain a national reputation as a top medical school while building an extensive set of internal programs addressing health and social justice,” he said. “A passion for change and improvement through advocacy is what Dr. Freeman is all about.”