A Vision for Bringing Health Care to the Poor
By Nicole Wallace

Long time RAM of Virginia volunteer, Ophthalmologist Calvin Miller, tests a woman’s vision. Picture by Jason Andrew for The Chronicle

When Remote Area Medical holds free health clinics, usually in economically struggling rural areas, people often start to line up a day or even two days ahead of time. Most, however, aren’t there because they’re ill or want to get a checkup.

“They’re coming because we fix their teeth, and we make them eyeglasses,” says Stan Brock, founder of the health charity. “When they’re sick, they go to the emergency room.”

When a clinic starts, everyone in line gets a number and selects whether they want to see a dentist, eye doctor, or physician. The rough breakdown: Seventy percent sign up to see a dentist, while most of the rest choose an eye doctor.

Remote Area Medical tries to persuade as many people as possible to see a medical doctor while they wait for the other services. It’s not uncommon for those examinations to uncover conditions patients didn’t know they had, like high blood pressure, diabetes, or, in a few cases, cancer.

Mr. Brock, who co-hosted the nature program Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in the 1960s, founded the organization in 1985 to provide medical care in developing countries. He was inspired by an experience he had as a teenager in South America: Working as a cowboy in a remote region of what was then British Guiana, he was badly injured by a wild horse, hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor. Reaching help would have taken days.

Later, Remote Area Medical turned its attention to the United States, where it has held more than 800 clinics and served more than 700,000 patients. The group’s annual budget of $3.1 million comes entirely from individuals and foundations.

Mr. Brock is stoic about the health-care debate on Capitol Hill. Remote Area Medical has never seen a downtick in the need for its services.

“The Affordable Care Act made absolutely no difference to our members,” he says. “The people in this country who can’t afford insurance or can’t afford to go to the dentist or the eye doctor are there in the millions.”