Daniel Stephens ’94 an Advocate for Underserved Youth
As a fourth grade teacher in the Compton Unified School District, Daniel Stephens ’94 was committed to supporting his students both in and outside the classroom.
He routinely attended his students’ athletic contests, music and dance recitals – even the quinceañeras of their older siblings.
So it wasn’t out of the ordinary when Stephens checked in on a former student who was hospitalized and being treated for sickle cell disease. “She missed a fair amount of school, so I went to visit her often and brought her classwork and homework so she didn’t fall behind,” he said.
During those visits, Stephens got a close up look at pediatric medicine and the experience sparked thoughts about a career change. “One of the nurses gave me some great advice,” he said. “She told me it seemed I had a genuine interest in medicine and I should give it a shot.”
Today, as the Director of Adolescent Medicine at Union Community Health Center in the Bronx, Stephens works tirelessly to ensure that young people have access to comprehensive integrated health care services.
“Thirty years ago, the model was a single pediatrician working on his own taking care of kids,” Stephens said. “Today, care can be delivered by a team of people – not just those working in medicine, but also people from the school system, athletic groups, artist communities, religious and community-based organizations, all working together on behalf of kids and their families.”
A graduate of Harvard College, who majored in history, Stephens had always planned on attending law school after teaching for a few years. But at the age of 29, after fulfilling some science prerequisites at University of Pennsylvania, and with immense encouragement from family and friends including his brother Fred Stephens ’91, Dr. Aaron Gardiner ’94 and Kevin McDonald ’94, Stephens found himself at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“At first I missed the classroom, because teaching was a lot more fun than learning medicine,” he said. “But it was just a matter of plugging away and meeting similarly minded, inspired, passionate people.”
After completing medical school and residency, Stephens worked in the pediatric emergency room at Harlem Hospital. “I sharpened my clinical skills there, and enjoyed working in and being involved with the community, but I had no hand in what happened before the patients came in and no role in what happened after,” he said. “As a doctor I wanted continuity – the chance to bring patients back and get to know families.”
At Union Community Health Center, Stephens not only provides comprehensive health care for youngsters and teens, ages 12-24, he trains pediatric and family practice residents as well as medical students from three New York City medical schools – Einstein, Sophie Davis and New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYCOM).
He also serves on the center’s quality assurance, patient centered medical home, and delivery system reform incentive payment program committees. “Union is a federally qualified health center, which means it meets very specific criteria set out in the Affordable Care Act to provide services to low income and low resource communities,” he said. “I get to help flesh out how we go about practicing and providing services.”
Stephens is also heavily involved with Union’s Teen Health Center, funded by a grant from the Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Program (CAPP) initiative, which offers community groups that help young men and women improve self-esteem, reduce risk-taking behavior, improve academic success and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
In the greater community, Stephens has worked with the Bronx Borough president on an HIV round table, and has teamed with Karen Stradford ’94, deputy director at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene- New York City Teens Connection, on various initiatives.
Striking the Balance for Care
The integrated model of medicine – providing primary and behavioral health services at a single location – isn’t yet the norm, Stephens said, mostly due to funding issues. “There’s a ton to be gained from team model medicine,” he said. “But the challenge is you have to have multiple ways of generating revenue to pay for it.”
Though parents may be good about bringing their children to the clinic when they have a cold, broken arm, or other medical issue, they may not have the ability, desire, or time to travel to another location for programmatic services that could improve their health and wellness, Stephens said.
It’s even more important for teens to have access to integrated services, Stephens said. “It’s easier for them to seek help for things like addiction or mental health issues because they can say they are going to the clinic for a doctor’s appointment. Other people don’t have to know the specific reason for the visit,” he said.
“Teens are the healthiest subset of people that we know. They are not at risk for the diseases that adults get later in life, like high blood pressure and heart disease, and they’re not necessarily susceptible to childhood illnesses that infants and babies get, like whooping cough or pneumonia,” he said. “But they’re the most at risk for any number of poor outcomes having to do with risky behavior.”
Providing a confidential space where teens can share – either with their physicians or specialized support groups – what’s going on in their lives can result in better outcomes, Stephens said.
For Stephens, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a doctor is knowing he is having a long-term impact on his patients. “If you can get a 15-year-old to understand the importance of healthy behavior and habits, you are setting that person up for 80 more years of healthy, productive, happy life,” he said.
While Stephens sees nutrition and obesity as the most pressing public health issues for adolescents, he worries about their reported increasing feelings of isolation and lack of social connection.
“We have so many ways of connecting with people, but people actually feel less connected,” he said. “A young person might have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but they can’t actually describe the last occasion they spent time with a friend.”
Meanwhile, the former O’Dowd student body president says he often tells the teens that he works with that it’s okay if they are uncertain about what career path to pursue.
“It’s great if you know your passion and you have known it from when you were a small child,” he said. “But sometimes you find it later in life, you meet someone who exposes you to something new, or an unexpected opportunity comes your way.”
Stephens is quite content in his second career. “Life is good and it’s very fulfilling,” he said.