Spotlight: Health Leads

By now, most of us have come to expect visits to the doctor to follow the same standard set of steps: you check in, sit in the waiting room, flip through People Magazine (or maybe The Economist if even sick-you is a smartypants), see the doctor for a diagnosis, take your medication prescriptions to a pharmacy, and voila, you’re on your way to getting better!

Growing up in a suburb of Connecticut, my experiences with the doctor’s office were pretty formulaic. The concept seemed simple: I was sick. I needed the doctor to give me medication, and then I would be well again. And for me, this really was, more or less, always the case. However, for millions of people in the United States, getting healthy and staying healthy is not so straightforward.

We tend to think of health as pure biology: cells, tissues, organs. Then, improving health must be a scientific endeavor. But this is a myopic view that doesn’t consider other root causes of illness. For many urban, low-income populations, bodily symptoms may only be at the surface of deeper issues. Patients who consistently have poor health often struggle with food, unsafe housing conditions, and limited or no access to a primary care physician.

Health Leads, formerly known as Project Health, seeks to address these issues by taking a more holistic approach to healthcare. In hospitals that have incorporated Health Leads, doctors may prescribe more than just your average penicillin. Healthcare providers also screen patients for basic needs, such as food or shelter, and fill a prescription, just as they would for medication. Health Leads volunteers then take over to help connect these patients to resources that can address both immediate needs and implement long-term solutions.


Already established in cities like New York, Baltimore, and Chicago, Health Leads and its impact may extend beyond the clinic. The organization has generated national attention, including a shout-out from Michelle Obama to founder Rebecca Onie, as it advocates a novel approach to healthcare delivery. Health Leads seeks to combat the challenges low-income patients face outside the walls of the doctor’s office. As Onie puts it in her recent TEDMED talk: “If we know what it takes to have a healthcare system rather than a sick-care system, why don’t we just do it?”



Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.