Anderson, champion for the poor, underserved

Special to The Dallas Examiner | 9/22/2014, 9:18 a.m. | Updated on 9/22/2014, 3:13 p.m.
Ron J. Anderson, MD, was a national spokesperson for public health issues and a champion for the poor and medically ...
Dr. Ron Anderson, former president and CEO at Parkland Health and Hospital System for 29 years, talks about the changes taking place at the facility. Anderson died on Sept. 11 Tony Gutierrez

Throughout his life he advocated for making health care a right for everyone, universally available to every U.S. citizen.

His vision of health care for all, regardless of ability to pay, paved the way for Parkland’s Community Oriented Primary Care, a network of neighborhood-based health centers that provide a “medical home” to primarily low-income communities.

Health care administrators and physicians came from as far away as Thailand to study Parkland’s system of health centers. The system became a national model for other communities across the country and won numerous awards for its ability to involve the community in clinic activities.

Under his guidance, the system grew to include 12 local health care clinics, 12 school-based clinics and the Homeless Outreach Medical Services that provides medical care in more than 20 homeless shelters around Dallas County.

In the mid-1990s he was once again thrust into the role of a national spokesperson because of his concern for the confidentiality of the physician-patient relationship when welfare reform measures threatened to require physicians and other health care providers to report undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

He said he found his niche at Parkland, where he could teach, do research and take care of patients under mentors like W. Donald Seldin, MD, who built UT Southwestern’s internal medicine department and helped bring Parkland to world-class status.

When Anderson was approached by Parkland board chairman Ralph Rogers in 1982 to assume the chief administrator’s position, he initially refused the offer. He recalled that Rogers, a respected community leader who rarely took “no” for an answer, persuaded him to accept the job by convincing Anderson that rather than take care of one person, he could take care of hundreds of people a day, and influence the health care of hundreds of thousands of others every year as CEO of Parkland.

Anderson promised Rogers five years. His tenure extended far beyond that.

During his years at Parkland, Anderson was courted by other hospitals and institutions across the country, but he never lost his zeal for the Dallas hospital. He often said that people at Parkland, himself included, had a missionary mentality and a passion for their work that transcended the lure of other institutions.

“Work at Parkland isn’t a job,” he said. “It is what you do – who you are. It is your life. There are very few places where you can get that.”

Anderson’s zest for life extended beyond the walls of the hospital. He was an avid reader, devouring everything from current medical literature and popular fiction and nonfiction to ancient classics. He was a writer, as well, and authored hundreds of medical and scholarly articles, monoliths and other essays.

His Oklahoma upbringing gave him a love and appreciation of American Indian culture – and the Indian name of Medicine Bear, a name he said was not associated with his profession. He was an avid hiker who often included Indian reservations and ancient Indian relics as part of his walking vacations. His interest in Indian lore became almost an obsession, judging by the walls of his office, which were covered in Indian artifacts and relics.

He was a devout Baptist who disliked religious labels but who believed in living the life of an involved activist.

“All of the people I have admired are people who are activists,” he said. “Here [at Parkland] you can take care of the least of our brethren.”

Anderson once told a UT Southwestern graduating class, “It is not enough just to try ‘to do good’ and try ‘to avoid evil,’ although these are the ethical keystones of the physician/patient relationship. We cannot be paternalistic toward patients and must accept their cultural, religious, ethnic and social differences. We must respect our patients’ autonomy and desire for wholeness, which should stimulate us to address the social justice issues affecting our patients’ lives.”

Throughout his life, Anderson fought long and hard for that reform.