Class of 2017: Medical Student Leaves Lasting Legacy for Area’s Underserved

Stephen Mein headshot

After graduation, medical student Stephen Mein will pursue a career in primary care, beginning with a residency in Boston. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

He visited chronically ill patients at home, met their families and even took them grocery shopping.

He taught newly released felons about the risks of smoking and the importance of good nutrition.

He treated Charlottesville’s uninsured at the student-run free clinic that he co-founded.

As University of Virginia medical student Stephen Mein looks back over countless hours logged in classrooms, hospitals and clinics, these are the memories that stand out and the ones that will shape his career. After he graduates in May, Mein; his wife, Janie; and their 9-month-old daughter, Berkeley, will move to Boston, where he will begin an internal medicine residency, likely with a focus on primary care, at the Harvard University-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

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“To me, primary care really focuses on your relationship with the patient, continuing that relationship over years and getting to know them and their families,” Mein said. “Primary care doctors can also focus on the factors that affect health that we don’t necessarily do the best job of addressing in the health care setting, such as social or environmental factors.”

Mein, who also earned his undergraduate degree from UVA, is one of six students in the School of Medicine’s prestigious Generalist Scholars Program, which supports students showing an extraordinary commitment to primary care. He recently received this year’s United States Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Award, recognizing medical students across the nation who demonstrate dedication to public health through exceptional contributions to their communities. Each medical school in the U.S. can nominate only one student for the award.  

“Stephen came to us with an appreciation for the incredible energy that needs to be put into promoting wellness, and that is what the public health award recognizes,” said Dr. Sean Reed, an associate professor of family medicine and assistant dean for student affairs who directs the Generalist Scholars Program.

“He has that big-picture perspective, and his commitment to raising awareness of public health will really benefit his patients, in addition to the clinical skills he is developing,” Reed said. “I am thankful for all that he has done here that will live on long after he leaves.”

Mein has founded or led several public health programs that will carry on after his time in Charlottesville comes to a close. One, begun the summer after his first year of medical school, pairs medical students with chronically ill patients to act as patient advocates.

“As a pilot, I followed two chronically ill patients for several weeks, doing home visits, going to their appointments and checking on them in the hospital,” Mein said. “At home, a lot of the focus was on education, teaching them about things like diabetes, how to take medications correctly or how to read food labels. My goal was to be the link between services delivered at home and those delivered in medical offices.”

The pilot was successful and the school decided to continue its efforts and add the program to the formal curriculum. Soon, every student arriving at the School of Medicine will be paired with a chronically ill patient. Mein hopes that the experience will help students better understand a patient’s point of view.

“In the hospital, you are in charge and you can tell patients feel out of sorts because it is not their home environment,” he said. “When you go to their house, you are the one that is a little uncomfortable and they are the ones welcoming you. It really helps you focus on the patient, on how complicated our system can be and how hard it can be to manage one’s health, especially with a chronic illness.”

Mein is particularly passionate about reaching patient populations underserved by the current system. He has undertaken medical mission trips around the world and, closer to home, co-founded UVA’s Interprofessional Service, Education, Research and Volunteering Endeavor, or iSERVE, to address disparities in treating poor and uninsured communities and minimize preventable disease.

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iSERVE includes a student-run free clinic that Mein and his peers created to involve medical students in the Charlottesville Free Clinic. Every week, pairs of medical and nurse practitioner students work under a preceptor to treat any patient who comes in – free of charge.

The effort also includes a partnership Mein and a group of classmates forged with Piedmont House, a halfway home for newly released, non-violent male felons. Each week, medical students spend the evening talking with the men about topics ranging from the effects of smoking and alcohol to the importance of sexual health and good nutrition. Sometimes they cook a meal together, demonstrating how to cook an inexpensive meal that is still healthy.

“I have learned a lot about what it is like to have the title of felon and to work to be integrated back into society,” Mein said. “There is a lot of stigma that makes it very difficult. I hope that this transition class can provide some relief.”

He credits his Christian faith as the inspiration for his drive to help underserved communities.

“Jesus provided us an example of how to love others, especially those forgotten by society, and made the ultimate sacrifice by dying for us,” Mein said. “His example led me to desire a career in medicine marked by self-sacrifice, meaningful patient relationships and an emphasis on treating underserved populations.”

As Mein prepares to graduate, he hopes that he and the thousands of other medical students graduating alongside him can continue that mission and advocate for their patients even as political debates swirl around health care in the U.S.

“In our country, we have rising health care costs for various reasons,” Mein said. “I think our class can help by advocating to our officials, promoting what we believe are sustainable solutions and, as we deliver care, being mindful of waste and cost to the patient. Being conscious of those concerns is so important.”