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Physician assistant leads refugee care program

For James Sutton, the greatest reward for guiding refugees to adequate health care is their gratitude.

  "My biggest joy has been, and always will be, the smile and simple thank-you I get from helping someone that normally wouldn’t be helped," he says. "That is what keeps me going."

  Sutton, director of community health at the Clinton Family Health Center and Rochester General Hospital, also directs care for the Rochester General Medical Group’s refugee health care program.

  Rochester General Health System created the program for refugees in January 2009 after Sutton warned of a shortage of doctors for local refugees. He has helped develop an infrastructure involving 30 Rochester General physicians.

  More than 1,500 refugees have come to Rochester since the program’s start, and 94 percent now have a primary-care provider, officials said.

  "He was instrumental in persuading primary-care providers at Rochester General Hospital to begin taking refugees into their practices on a rotating basis," says Andrew Doniger M.D., director of the Monroe County Department of Public Health. "This has dramatically improved the access to care for this need population.

  "In addition, Jim has worked to develop ancillary services including translation services for refugees. He has been the impetus for the writing of several successful grants to serve this population."

  More than 10,000 refugees live in the Rochester area, officials say. Their common characteristics include a history of inadequate medical care, exposure to undetected or untreated diseases, experiences that often have included torture and terrorism, and cultural and language adjustments in new environments.

  Refugee arrivals have been increasing nationwide since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sutton says.

  "The president sets a cap of how many refugees per year the U.S. will take, and the cap has been 80,000 for almost two decades now," he says. "Prior to 9/11 we never came close to the cap. After 9/11 it dropped to almost zero for a few years. Then, as the Department of Homeland Security became more efficient at processing immigrants into the U.S., the numbers started to rise."

  The number of refugees coming to Rochester each year has risen from less than 200 in 2002 to 800 in 2010, officials say.

  "Refugees are one of the most vulnerable populations within our community," says Carolyn Portanova, president and CEO of the Catholic Family Center. "In terms of health, refugees have typically suffered years of medical neglect in refugee camps where care is scarce, inconsistent or simply non-existent.

  "The involvement of the Rochester General Medical Group refugee health care team led by Jim Sutton has brought an enormous amount of energy and innovation to the challenges of providing quality health care to this most vulnerable of populations."

  Sutton graduated from the physician assistant program at the University of Washington in 1987 and completed his residency in pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine in 1993. He is an adjunct clinical professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. He also teaches physician assistant students in family medicine at Rochester General Medical Group’s Clinton Family Health Center, where he has been a physician assistant since 1997.

  As director of the refugee health care program, Sutton often puts in 12-hour workdays and frequently works weekends.

  "The biggest challenge is trying to cram 16 hours of work into an eight-hour workday," he says. "I hate to cut corners and accept nothing less than excellence in everything that I do. But the amount of work that needs to be done versus the amount of time I actually have to do it is a constant struggle for me."                                   

3/18/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

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