Renowned Physician Patch Adams Urges Techies to Help Build an Ethical World

Dr. Patch Adams describes himself as a
 “free doctor” who plans to provide free
 health care through the Gesundheit 
Institute, which he founded. 
Patch Adams, the physician famously played on the silver screen by Robin Williams, urged IT professionals to help build an ethical and nonviolent world during his keynote speech at the 2016 Masters Summit in Salt Lake City.

“The IT world offers the strongest possibility for a revolution. You’ve made the world your living room. Let’s do something,” said Adams, a family doctor, humanitarian, activist, author, and clown. He spoke to a standing-room only crowd about what he called the “most radical medical project in the world.” 

More than 500 people attended the ninth Masters Summit, MasterControl’s premier annual educational conference for its customers. This year, it was held in Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City, from Oct. 11-13, 2016.

Unconventional Doctor

The 71-year-old Adams, always unconventional, addressed the meeting in a colorful outfit and wore his long silver hair (dyed partly in blue) in a braid. 

As a medical student, he studied health care delivery systems because he considered the typical hospital a “frenetic and horrible environment.” In 1971, he founded the Gesundheit Institute, originally a house with six rooms that served as a hospital and offered free health care. The facility cared for up to 1,000 people every month for 12 years. He and his colleagues who staffed the hospital worked other jobs to sustain their mission.
In 1983, Gesundheit stopped accepting patients and shifted its mission to raising funds in order to build a proper hospital as Adams envisioned it. Gesundheit essentially refers to “health” in German ("gesund" means health and "heit" means hood). 

Adams is a grassroots doctor who sees medicine as a vehicle for change. “I designed a hospital system that eliminates 90 percent of costs,” he said. “We want to eliminate the idea that when you get care, you owe something to somebody. Instead, we want you to feel you belong to a community that cares for you.”

While a doctor typically spends seven to eight minutes with a patient, Adams spends four hours with a patient during initial interview. As a family doctor, he visits patients’ homes to get to know their families. He doesn’t prescribe psychiatric medications. He believes in health care that’s both loving and fun. 

“When medicine doesn’t have an offering [for cure], clowning will,” Adams said. He admitted that he’s a clown who’s a doctor and not the other way around. He took up clowning as a teen to cope with bullying.

Growing Up Overseas

Adams, the son of a soldier, spent most of his childhood in U.S. Army bases overseas. They were living in Germany when his father died in 1961. That year, the family returned to the United States and settled in Virginia where he saw “whites only” drinking fountains and witnessed segregation up close. “My life changed forever. My mother made me an ethical person and I couldn’t believe anyone could walk by that sign and not care,” he said. 

At an all-white public school he attended, he used to scream at the top of his lungs whenever someone uttered a racial slur inside the classroom. “I was beaten up every day because I couldn’t be silenced,” he recalled. 

Early on his career, he’d decided to be a “free” physician and to serve as an instrument for peace and change. 

Movie Fame

After offering free health care for 12 years without any financial donors, Adams began to accommodate publicity to raise funds. The movie “Patch Adams,” directed by Tom Shadyac and featuring the late Robin Williams, brought Adams fame and a career as a public speaker. 

Since then, he has traveled to 81 countries and reached out to refugees, victims of sex trafficking, and other people who have experienced tremendous suffering. “I have seen so much horror,” he said, visibly choked up. “If being ethical is being different, then 'vive la différence!'”

He criticized the high cost of health care in this country, saying, “One of the biggest reasons people lose their homes is because of medical bills.” Referring to a hypothetical patient with a costly heart surgery, he added, “Nice heart, but no home.”

When it comes to medical education, he said students are taught all about an individual’s health care, but nothing about loving and caring for families and communities.

Be Radiant

A member of the audience asked for advice on how to teach kids to be more caring. Adams said parents should make their lives a good example to their children by being both fun and loving. “Be radiant all the time. Love life! Be ethical,” he said. “Talk about things that matter to you.”

He exhorted the tech world to transcend corporate interests. “Be useful not just for business, but for a nonviolent and caring world,” he said.

Gesundheit Institute plans to build a hospital in rural West Virginia that will re-invent the concept of a hospital by providing free health care and a loving community to patients, who will be treated as friends and not just patients. The institute also offers educational programs and pursues global outreach programs.

Learn more about Patch Adams and the Gesundheit Institute.

Cindy Fazzi is the editor of MasterControl Insider, a monthly publication for MasterControl users. She writes about the life science industry and other regulated environments. Her two decades of experience as a news reporter, writer, and editor includes working for the Associated Press in Ohio and New York. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University.