When the executive dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center sought someone to lead a new initiative to further extend the work of the college into the community, one name rose to the top – Altha Stewart, MD.
Dr. Stewart holds many titles at UTHSC. The newest is senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine.
She also continues as an associate professor of psychiatry, the director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, and chief of Social and Community Psychiatry for the College of Medicine. She is the founder and directs the Youth Advocacy Coalition, which opened in late August at the university.
In this new role, Dr. Stewart will develop the “Everyone Has a Provider” program envisioned by College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD. A work in progress, the initiative aims to meet unmet health care needs in the community by expanding access to health care to every individual in Shelby County.
“The program is designed as part of Dr. Strome’s vision for the university being outward facing, so that the Memphis and Shelby County community sees the work that we do here, the services we offer, the training we provide, and the research that we conduct as having value in this community,” Dr. Stewart said. “It will address, we believe, some of the needs of the underserved populations in the Memphis and Shelby County area and it will leverage the vast resources of UTHSC and its partners in health care delivery.”
With her history of service in the community and extensive contacts, Dr. Stewart is charged with putting a framework together for the idea, initially working with the leadership of the College of Medicine and anticipating that the entire university will eventually join the initiative.
The first step involves a needs assessment in the community, she said. “What we hope we can establish with the needs assessment is that for some people who have generally good health but don’t have access to the necessary services to maintain good health, that we can find a way to give them that, whether it’s an annual checkup, or addressing a specific issue that we know they have,” she said. “And for people who we know have chronic medical conditions, hypertension, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, chronic COPD, all of those chronic illnesses, we know that with proper maintenance, with proper interventions, we can go a long way in helping them to not continue to be challenged by these things and wind up visiting the ER because they lack primary care service.”
Access to care could involve connecting individuals with physicians, nurse practitioners, counselors, community clinics, nutrition information, mental health services, and other health care providers. “We want to help people become a partner in their own health,” she said.
Dr. Stewart recently completed a year as president of the American Psychiatric Association and is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in public sector and minority issues in mental health care and in the effects of trauma and violence on children.
She grew up in South Memphis, graduated from public and parochial schools in the city, and was among the first class of women admitted to what is now Christian Brothers University. She received her medical degree from Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia and completed her residency at Hahnemann University Hospital there.
“I’m a Memphian, and the work I have done with the Center for Health In Justice Involved Youth has kept me in the community and gives me a certain visibility and credibility to be a messenger from the university and to bring the university with all of its history and resources and other things that we have to offer into the community,” Dr. Stewart said.