By Corinna Wu
Elmer Huerta's call-in show and clinic help Latinos tune in to cancer prevention
By Corinna Wu
One of Huerta’s callers today is named Daniel, who says that his left knee hurts: What could be wrong, he asks?
“Will you do me a favor?” Huerta says into the microphone. “Pull up your pant leg; I want to see your knee.” Daniel sounds skeptical but obeys the request. “OK, let me examine your knee now,” Huerta continues. “Straighten it out.” Daniel starts to laugh, realizing what’s happening.
Huerta explains that he can’t make diagnoses over the airwaves and encourages the caller to see a doctor. “Then you call me back and I can explain it to you.” Daniel’s question got the frustrated scream sound effect.
Indeed, Huerta’s radio and TV appearances are part of a larger strategy to get listeners to visit a doctor before they fall ill. The Preventorium, a cancer prevention clinic that he runs at the Washington Hospital Center, has screened 20,000 people for cancer in the past 12 years. Ninety percent of his patients are Latino, and 8 percent are African-American. The exams cost $120—cash only—and include a brief check-up, a family medical history, and certain age-appropriate screenings for breast, cervical, prostate, testicular and colorectal cancers. Patients who need further treatment are referred to other doctors.
The fee might seem steep for those who are living from paycheck to paycheck—and, in fact, Huerta says 90 percent of his patients are “working poor.” But many insurers wouldn’t cover his services, he asserts, and just 30 percent of his patients have health insurance. Huerta says a similar exam would cost an average of $400 elsewhere, and he convinces his patients that the $120 is money well-spent. “My message is that you have to invest in your own health,” he says.
And people are listening: Appointments at the Preventorium are booked for months.
Huerta would love to guide someone to start similar clinics for other populations. “You need an African-American doctor to talk to the African-American community,” he says. “You need that connection.”
The Washington Hospital Center has in fact begun to bring Huerta’s cancer prevention model—a low-cost clinic combined with massive outreach—to cities around the world, says Lawrence Lessin, the medical director of the Washington Cancer Institute. Already, two clinics have been established in Peru and one in Sri Lanka.
Huerta plans to spread the message of prevention further as president of the American Cancer Society. In November 2007, he will become the first Latino to hold the post.