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Meet civic investor Eric Bouwens: Investing in the city's health

Dr. Eric Bouwens is the first physician at Spectrum Health's new health clinic for patients without health insurance downtown. His philosophy: listening and patience are the greatest investment you can make.

/Eric Tank

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Surrounded by 12 comfortable exam rooms, a procedure room for minor surgeries and a team of financial assistants to help patients navigate health funding and an on-site social worker, Dr. Eric Bouwens finds himself starting off Spectrum Health's first clinic designed specifically for those with low income and/or without health insurance: the Community Medicine Clinic. The clinic, along with patients visiting simply because they do not have access to health insurance, regularly assists those struggling with chronic psychiatric care needs, homelessness, abuse or addiction. Many of them are also chronically under-insured.

"It shows some real dedication to say 'you know, we do want to be on the ground trying to confront some of these problems,'" says Bouwens of Spectrum's new venture. 

Bouwens himself is not new to approaching his career as a doctor as a means to work for social good.

"In college, in my first few years, I was very aware of concepts of building community, restoring cities, being on the front lines at some of the hard places of our society- and I did some of that, at that time. I worked in Chicago [at] Cook County Hospital, I worked in the inner city of Washington, did a lot of things like that. When I came back to Michigan, I worked in migrant clinics there," he says. "But then you have family. And so sometimes physicians end up putting all their focus on their career and it’s hard on their families and so at a certain point you just say, at this stage in life, I just need to focus on my family. So the other things are still there but they’re just not the creative edge."

Bouwens says he continued to put his multicultural experience to work, even in his work at a standard practice.

"I did have a bilingual practice down in Kentwood. It was very multicultural, and that was very good for me in those years," he says. "As my children left the home, and I moved back into the city, back into East Hills, I started to realize that my practice out there was fine, but I was very excited about the changes that are restoring cities and building community again and just being open to there being a new growth in that area. I think that there’s a certain stage in life when you can just kind of coast into retirement age or you can open the door to a new creative direction."

Instead of coasting, Bouwens is now looking forward to building up the Spectrum Community Medicine Clinic, which has just been approved for a Physicians Assistant and is looking to expand their staff further. Bouwens says part of his role is to mentor the younger generation of doctors on how to invest in their patients while not depleting their personal lives. 

"The need is overwhelming," he says. "It could become all-consuming if you have not established boundaries between yourself and your work. A lot of physicians get very caught up in helping other people, and their whole identity becomes their work. And then routine relationships with spouse and children are not quite as exciting or maybe frustrating... they start focusing more and more on saving people’s lives, and it’s so dramatic."

Bouwens says he himself had to learn how to keep boundaries, and part of that is valuing activities outside his work. He bikes, does a lot of salsa dancing and can often be found on one of The Rapidian's photowalks. Bouwens says along with being a contributing photographer for The Rapidian, he counts on The Rapidian to get more connected with his community.

"The Rapidian allows me a new network to learn what is going on in my local community- those informal connections. For instance I learned about Well House through The Rapidian. And then last week I had the opportunity to go there and meet Tami VandenBerg, and you know, I think we have some areas that we could work together," he says. "And so where I think that traditional newspapers were once a pretty strong organizing factor in terms of forming community, the question is what’s going to happen as they decline and no longer have as big of a role. I’m glad that citizen journalists have an opportunity to be a part of that community building. So it helps me to know who else is there and who may have common goals."

Plus, says Bouwens, being involved with The Rapidian provides a fun way for him to connect with other people who have a common interest, whether that's within his work or outside of it.

"I don’t set my own identity based on which degree of my practice I’m doing," he says." I don’t have to do everything for everybody. [At work,] I just have to bring scientific knowledge and be present and compassionate with the person I am with at that moment- that’s what I actually need to do. Kind of simple."

Avoiding the temptation in medicine of "scoring" one's success on how many people you can help, Bouwens focuses on the quality of care for each individual. He believes listening and believing in a person's ability to change their own lives can often be just as valuable as all of medicine's technical advances- and shows a greater respect for the people he serves.

"One person that we saw, for example, was able to recognize that alcohol was a significant portion of his problem. He had a very significant degenerative neurological problem that was probably being triggered by that and he was becoming quite disabled. He was quite open to learning that information, and changing his diet and going to therapy and he’s basically 95% restored to his normal life, really without some fantastic medical save- it’s really just changing how he lives," he says. "When people can feel that they’re actually empowered- they actually have the ability to change their own lives- that’s kind of powerful."

Bouwens has also learned over the years that practicing medicine with this perspective sometimes requires patience.

"Sometimes you’re not going to see the response. Sometimes you just have to decide to remain present and walk with people. They are just not ready for the information and so now that I’ve actually seen people that it took me 10 years to get their attention. Most of us are not willing to wait 10 years to get people’s attention," he says. "The thing that I’ve had to learn is to not get frustrated. Because that’s kind of about me, right? You owe me some change so that will justify my work. And really I just need to be present and bring information."

But Bouwens knows that when we listen, others can find strength and start to rebuild. He sees in his current work that his own approach to medicine fits well with the needs of his patients at Spectrum Health Community Medicine Clinic.

"People really need to know that they’re actually being treated as human beings and being listened to- and not just numbers being pushed through. So we really want to give respect, dignity- and even if our numbers are not huge, it has impact. We often see people who tell us that they’ve never been treated well before," he says. "I want to make relationships with people. That’s what gives me energy. To build trust in a relationship that could have a potential of giving benefit to that person."

Respect, dignity and relationship building, says Bouwens: that is where the real impact can happen.

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