Mark J. Harris: Using the Columbia-Bassett Program to See the Bigger Picture

As one of the 10 members of the inaugural class of the Columbia-Bassett Program, Mark J. Harris spent his clinical year studying how medicine is delivered in a place altogether different from New York City: Cooperstown, N.Y., population 1,834. The Columbia-Bassett Program allows students to follow patients over the course of a year as they move among inpatient and outpatient services throughout the large Bassett Healthcare Network.

“We’re able to create a bond with patients,” he says. “They see us as an integral part of their care, especially when going from visit to visit—from specialists to surgery to follow-ups.”

Such a curriculum dovetails with Dr. Harris’ enduring interest in communication. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he created his own major, a blend of biology and linguistics that enabled him to study the biological underpinnings of language acquisition. At Columbia, he decided to augment his work at P&S with an extra year studying public health at Mailman; he will receive a dual MD/MPH this May.

“Even though medicine and public health work toward the same goal, there’s not much collaboration,” he says. “I hope to be someone who speaks both languages, who can help translate findings and research from one field to the other. After all, there’s already been a lot of research into the causes of disease; I’m interested in how to implement the findings we already have.”

There’s perhaps never been a better time for such work. The Affordable Care Act has brought to the fore questions about the efficiency, cost, and quality of our health care system. Though these are big picture, macro issues, they start with the experiences of individual patients, doctors, and communities.

“We need structures that bring together all the pieces of medicine and connect it with the community,” he says. “There’s a real benefit in doctors’ being positioned in such a way that they can fine-tune their care to the place they’re in, so they can focus on the issues that are most relevant. Even if you’re going into a subspecialty of surgery, the social issues are important. The same problems we find in Washington Heights—issues with health care literacy and education or problems finding transportation—are the same problems we see everywhere.”