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Bringing Equality
to Health Care

UM father and sons transform health care delivery for the elderly, poor and chronically ill


s a cardiology fellow at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine in 2003, Christopher J. Chen, M.D. ’00, was stunned to receive a call from his mother asking him to come home to Miami right away. His father, Jen-Ling James Chen, Ph.D., M.D. ’81, had just been diagnosed with head and neck cancer and was only expected to live for two months.

Thus began the Chen family’s enlightening journey through the patient side of health care. Besides a staggering misdiagnosis — the elder Dr. Chen actually had a treatable form of lymphoma — the multiple specialists involved in his care did not collaborate, appointments had to be booked weeks in advance, and compassion seemed lacking.

After recovering, Dr. Chen’s father decided the family had to do something more with his small private practice. They set out to grow a local clinic into a multi-geography powerhouse of patient-centered, physician-led primary care designed to provide high-quality health care to the neediest populations. Dr. Chen is the chief executive officer. His younger brother, Gordon Chen M.D. ’05, is the chief medical officer.

“When we began building out ChenMed, we were very much aware of what the delivery system felt like from the other side of the glass,” Dr. Chen said. “That drives many of our decisions: If we were in the patient’s shoes, what would we want? Our original goal was to deliver superior patient outcomes and a positive patient experience to a population that is typically underserved, during the most vulnerable time of their lives.”

Changing the World

Listed on Fortune’s 2020 “Change the World” list, ChenMed delivers concierge-style health care to elderly, poor, and chronically ill patients. It operates nearly 80 primary care medical practices in 10 states, and with its emphasis on preventative care, the organization’s hospital admission rate is 30 to 50 percent lower than the national average.

“ChenMed is revolutionizing health care. Our doctors don’t get paid for just showing up and providing service,” Dr. Chen said. “We only win when our patients win.”

While the average primary care physician in the U.S. sees more than 2,000 patients — and often 3,000 or more in the underserved areas where ChenMed operates — ChenMed doctors are responsible for only 400 patients. Each location offers high-value specialty care onsite for convenience. ChenMed locations also offer alternative medicine, such as acupuncture, dispensing of prescriptions onsite, transportation, and other services designed to make medical care accessible and create a high degree of engagement. Patients even have their doctor’s cell phone number, so they know they can reach someone if they need help. On average, ChenMed patients receive 189 minutes of face time with their doctor per year, compared to 16 minutes received by the average Medicare patient, according to Dr. Chen.

An Act of Faith

The Chen family hasn’t forgotten how difficult life was when James Chen was in medical school and raising two young sons with his wife, Mary. They lived in a diverse urban community several blocks away from the University of Miami campus, and money was tight. That same diversity is a hallmark of ChenMed’s practice today: More than 75% of its patients are minorities, as are more than 50% of the organization’s employees.

The family’s strong faith and dedication to social justice are central to ChenMed’s mission.

“We’re a devout, faith-based family, and we have a deep heart for the underserved,” Dr. Chen said. “This is who we are.”

Dr. Chen also credits the strong clinical focus at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine with preparing him for his career.

“Doctors who come out of programs with a strong urban presence, such as UM, do a great job of making people better,” he said. “They seem to have discovered that nearly 85 percent of health care is about what lies outside the clinic — a person’s genetic code, where they live, and their lifestyles and behaviors. We saw that every day at UM when dealing with patient challenges that have nothing to do with pills, procedures, specialists and tests. Doctors have to be cognizant of that and engage themselves in the patient’s life to actually make a difference.”

Christopher J. Chen, M.D.

A Family Tradition:

In a way, the Miller School is like an extension of Dr. Chen’s family. In addition to his father and brother, Dr. Chen has other relatives who are Miller School alumni: Uncle Peter Chang M.D. ’79; Uncle Kenneth Lo M.D. ’82; sister-in-law (Gordon’s wife) Jessica Lane Chen M.D. ’06. Dr. Chen’s roommate and Dr. Gordon Chen’s brother-in-law, Jason Lane, M.D. ’01. Dr. Chen and his wife Stephanie have four children: James, John, Natalie and Rebecca.

Visit the Medical Alumni Association website for alumni news, event updates, and ways to stay connected.

FALL 2020