Doctors with passion to serve – and less debt
Dr. Bahghi Keflezighi wanted to practice medicine for a very noble reason: To serve low-income families in inner-city San Diego.
Having emigrated from the African nation of Eretria at the age of 10, she said that she knows how important access to health care is for poor people.
“I always wanted to become a doctor to work in a place of need,” said Keflezighi, who works for the Diamond Neighborhood Health Care Center, in eastern San Diego. “It’s a way for me to give back to the community.”
Her goal is being made possible thanks to a grant from the Thomson Physician Corps Loan Repayment Program, which encourages doctors to serve in low-income and rural communities for three years. In exchange, doctors selected receive about $105,000 to repay medical school student loans. The grants are made possible through a $25 donation that doctors make when they renew their professional licenses. It will raise about $1.5 million a year, benefiting 16 physicians throughout the state this year.
The program was created by Assemblymember Hector de la Torre, D-South Gate, who this week was in San Diego to congratulate Keflezighi.
“The Diamond Neighborhood Family Health Care Center alongside thousands of residents in San Diego, will benefit by having another doctor in the community,” De la Torre said. “The program allows doctors to focus on giving service to the community, and not worrying about paying for student loans.”
He said that this is way to make health care access available for low-income families in San Diego.
De la Torre said that there are about 600,000 people with no health insurance in San Diego County. Of those, 150,000 are children. Statewide, there are 7 million people without health insurance, he said.
He also said that in areas with higher incomes there are 30 doctors for every 1,000 residents. On the other hand, the number drops to 10 doctors for every 1,000 residents in low-income areas.
Keflezighi will serve a community that is about 50 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American, with a majority of low-income families. The neighborhood in eastern San Diego is considered the area with the great est concentration of African-Americans in the city of San Diego. About 25 percent of the residents here lack health insurance, according to Assemblymember Mary Salas, who represents the area and one of the strongest supporters of the program.
“I think I will serve as a role model for the youth of this community,” said Keflezighi, who began the program in July, but has been working for one year for Family Health Centers of San Diego, the organization behind the Diamond Neighborhood Family Health Center.
Keflezighi grew up in Linda Vista, attended Memorial Middle School in Barrio Logan, then graduated from San Diego High School. She earned her medical degree from UCLA, and did her residency at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista.
“Her story is very symbolic, because she’s coming back to her community,” De la Torre said.
For Keflezighi, the grant program will help her ease the burden of repaying student loans while working for a community clinic, which usually have trouble recruiting doctors because they offer lower wages than bigger hospitals in more affluent areas.
“The loan repayment funds are allowing me to fulfill my dream of providing high quality medicine to uninsured and medically underserved families in San Diego,” she said.
Felipe Garcia, director of the Diamond Neighborhood Family Health Center, said that having Keflezighi as one of two physicians in the clinic is a blessing.
“It’s a great honor to have doctors like her, who have the passion to serve our communities,” Garcia said. “These doctors can relate to our patients.”