The Spirit of Altruism

Marc Altshuler, MD ’01—physician, professor, administrator, director, patient navigator, and healthcare hero—has spent the past two decades giving back to the community

You can find Jefferson’s version of Ellis Island in the BOK building, a former vocational school in South Philadelphia and current home to the Hansjörg Wyss Wellness Center.

“Healthcare is hard to navigate even when you do speak English,” says Marc Altshuler, MD ’01, professor and residency director of Family and Community Medicine and the clinical leader of the Wyss Center. “Immigrants and refugees are facing unprecedented challenges today, and receiving healthcare shouldn’t be another barrier to overcome.”

For two decades, Dr. Altshuler has removed those barriers, building the region’s largest medical clinic for refugees. In recognition of his efforts, Dr. Altshuler received the Faegre Drinker Healthcare Hero Award at the 2021 Jefferson Gala. We had a chance to sit down with him and talk about his career and time at Jefferson.

What attracted you to Jefferson?
I went to University of Pennsylvania undergraduate and had spent some time here after college and really wanted to stay in Philadelphia. I knew that Jefferson had a commitment to really serving the community, which was an interest of mine. I wanted to be in a very large city where I could serve a diverse group of patients.

What drew you to family medicine?
During my early years as a medical student at Jefferson, I got very involved in JeffHOPE, which is one of the largest student-run organizations at Jefferson where students are running different clinics at homeless shelters across the city. I spent as much free time during my four years as I could at different homeless shelters, working my way up to become one of the directors of JeffHOPE. I helped open a new site for women and children. And that women and children’s shelter was the first time that I took care of a family unit, so to speak. And between that experience and my experiences working in the Department of Family Medicine as a medical student, I decided I wanted to switch from being a pediatrician to a family medicine physician.

What’s the best thing about family medicine?
You don’t always need to take a family history, because hopefully the entire family can be yours. The connection that you can make to patients and the longevity of those relationships is unbelievable. Because as a family medicine doctor, you can take care of patients starting prenatally as their OB, take care of them as newborns, pediatrics, adults, and just being able to grow with my patients and watching them go through the different life cycles, including the ups and downs, I feel is a privilege. And I could not see myself doing anything else.

What is the biggest challenge in your field?
For many of our patients there’s a lack of resources in the community. A lot of our patients are struggling, and for many of them, it’s very hard to see other doctors. Because they work, there’s a time commitment, there’s a cost. And they come to the primary care doctor to try to take care of everything. At the same time, there are a lot of different social determinants that impact a patient’s health and, as a primary care doctor, you have a unique insight into that, which can make it very challenging, but also very rewarding at the same time.

If you weren’t a physician, what would you be?
I grew up going to summer camp and was a camp counselor. And my dream if I was not a doctor was to run a summer camp. Both of my kids go now and I spend a few weeks with them as the camp doctor. I’m known as “Dr. Marc." Which is probably the next best thing because I get to go back and get that experience, which I loved growing up.

When was the last time a patient really surprised you?
I really have valued the relationships that I’ve built with patients being there for them. And during the COVID pandemic, patients started reaching out to me to see how I was doing. They knew that as one of many frontline workers, we were out there trying to take care of very, very sick individuals. And it was just really gratifying to know that they cared as much for me as I did for them.

What is the proudest moment in your career?
I would have to group my proudest moments into, I think, two different categories. As a program director, I have the privilege of knowing many of my residents as students, interviewing them, watching them spend three years with us growing as physicians, going through all the highs and lows of their training, and then graduating. The analogy I use is as a parent watching your kid grow up and graduate high school or graduate college and knowing that they're succeeding, it's the same feeling I have from my residents.

And I think from a clinical perspective, several years ago, we decided to embark on an ambitious plan to fundraise to build a health center that could really take care of the larger immigrant community, not just refugees. And through support of many of my colleagues and leadership across Jefferson and fundraising we were able to open the Wyss Wellness Center in South Philadelphia. I think that’s probably my other proudest clinical movement is knowing that this dream of mine to open a health center actually happened.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
I think if I had to give advice to my 25-year-old self, as corny as this may sound, it would've been it's okay to follow your dreams and it's okay to be a little bit of a dreamer. I tend to be an optimist and be glass full and want to take care of everyone and serve the world. And it never hurts to ask for help, ask for support and just be patient. Because hopefully good things will happen in time.

Dr. Marc Altshuler Honored at the 19th Annual Jefferson Gala