(Oct. 5, 2017) — As a Washington, D.C., native who trained to become a doctor during the civil rights movement, Harold P. Freeman, MD, developed a heightened sensitivity around social injustice that ultimately influenced his career path. This November, Freeman’s work as a patient advocate, surgical oncologist, researcher and national leader will be recognized with Georgetown University Medical Center’s highest honor.
The Cura Personalis Award, given annually to health professionals who have shown compassion and service through their contributions in medicine, will be given to Freeman, founder and president/CEO of the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute, at the Tenth Annual GUMC Fall Convocation on November 16.
The Cura Personalis Award “is a very high honor ... that [reflects] what I’ve tried to do in my career” through compassion for all patients, Freeman said.
Identifying Barriers to Care
After graduating from Catholic University of America and Howard University College of Medicine, Freeman worked in Harlem, New York, where he began to see health disparities and injustice towards his poor and black patients. Many of his patients came to his clinic with advanced stages of cancer that could have been cured if they had been diagnosed earlier.
Freeman began to address this health disparity and envisioned programs that could assist all patients. In 1979, shortly after being named the director of surgery at Harlem Hospital, he founded the Breast Examination Center of Harlem, an outreach program that has provided free breast cancer screenings to over 200,000 women.
“Through these clinics, I essentially solved the issue of providing screening for women,” Freeman said. ”But I noticed that women who sometimes would come in for the screening became lost in the health care system after that.”
Exploring the way patients maneuvered through the health care system, Freeman began researching what he called “patient navigation.” Patient barriers he discovered included challenges related to communication, finances, fear and distrust that contributed to health care disparities mostly in the poorest communities.
Taking Patient Navigation Programs National
To address patient navigation on a national level, he became the chief architect of the Cancer in the Poor initiative for the American Cancer Society and later became the national president of the organization in 1988. In recognition of his leadership, the American Cancer Society has since established the Harold P. Freeman Award that honors those who make contributions to the fight against cancer in the poor.
Now as the CEO, president and founder of the Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute located in New York City, Freeman continues to advocate for all patients, especially those who are poor and uninsured. Through the creation of the “Patient Navigation Program,” hundreds of other health care institutions have replicated his model.
“When I started my work in these areas, I wasn't trying to solve a national problem,” Freeman said. “But as it turned out, this program directed at solving the problems in Harlem I was facing turned out to be touching on elements that were universal.”
From 1991 to 2000, Freeman held the positions of panel member and later chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel. His dedication also led to the adoption of the Patient Navigator and Chronic Disease Prevention Act, signed by President George W. Bush in June 2005.
Freeman has been honored for his work with the title of emeritus professor of surgery at Columbia University as well as honorary doctor of science degrees from Albany Medical College, Niagara University, Adelphi University and Catholic University of America. He also has been awarded the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor, the Center for Disease Control Foundation’s Champion of Prevention Award and the University of California at San Francisco Medal. In 2000, he received the Lasker Award for enlightening scientists and the public about the relationships between race, poverty and cancer.
The Tenth Annual GUMC Fall Convocation will take place November 16 in the Research Building Auditorium. Events will include a colloquium on health disparities at 10:00 a.m. followed by the convocation ceremony that afternoon at 4:00 p.m.
Amber Robins, MD