When Rakiyah Jones was on his community health rotation as a student at Rutgers’ School of Nursing in 2009, he found himself in an unlikely place: the parking lot of his childhood church.
Jones SN’09, who grew up in Newark, was part of a student cohort offering free health services outside the New Hope Baptist Church. After popping into the sanctuary to encourage parishioners to take advantage of blood pressure checks and screenings, Jones rounded the corner to another childhood fixture—the since-demolished James M. Baxter Terrace Housing Projects.
That day, Jones performed his first-ever tuberculosis skin test on someone from the neighborhood. “Well, I’m glad you know what you’re doing,” the person said when Jones was complimented on his technique by a church member. “It was a big booster,” Jones says.
“Being born and raised in Newark, the odds are against you. The statistics say you’re not going to make it. But people [from my neighborhood] saying, ‘We knew you were going to do something,’ and ‘Keep going, baby, thank you,’ just facilitated my need and desire to stay in my community.”
After earning several degrees and traveling across the world with the U.S. Army, Jones returned to the Newark area to open KinFolk Family Health, a concierge primary care practice—in which patients pay retainer fees for near-unlimited access to their doctors—in nearby Montclair. There, he has served hundreds of patients—many of them uninsured people of color with traumatic experiences or limited access to primary care providers.
A SMART student
At around age 14, Jones was accepted into Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Science Medicine and Related Topics (SMART) program for middle and high school students. “Every summer, I was there working on research or taking a class,” he says. “The goal was to go to medical school.”
After high school, Jones enrolled in Montclair State University’s Health Careers Program for underrepresented students. But it didn’t take long for Jones to realize being a doctor wasn’t right for him at that time. “All we did was sit in conferences and discuss everything,” he says. “But I wanted to be with the patient. Nurses were with the patient.”
Jones came to Rutgers, where he relished learning to be a nurse in his hometown. “A lot of times on clinicals, I’d run into people I knew from around the area,” he says. “It was comforting for them, but it was comforting for me, as well. They got me more engaged with the community.”
Jones knew that all roads would lead him back to the Newark area, but he wanted to educate himself enough to support his community fully. So, he began a sort of global rotation of his own design.
After graduating from Rutgers, Jones took a junior research scientist position at New York University studying pain in Blacks. Then, to gain clinical experience—and the chance to travel even farther from New Jersey—Jones joined the U.S. Army. Throughout the United States and as far away as South Korea, Jones honed his skills in patient care by serving in various roles, including as a medical-surgical nurse and a labor and delivery nurse.
Then it was back to New York—to Columbia University—to learn how to link his clinical care and research passions. Jones studied for his nurse practitioner master’s degree and doctorate with a clinician who specialized in palliative care for patients with chronic illness–related pain. It was there that the idea for KinFolk was born.
Taking Care of Business
Jones came to believe that patients should be introduced to palliative care, which focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of serious illness, soon after being diagnosed with a “life-limiting,” chronic illness—rather than in the last few days of life. “Hypertension is a life-limiting illness,” Jones says. “If you are diagnosed with [a life-limiting illness], we [should integrate palliative care to] maximize quality of life.”
Jones opened KinFolk in 2019, asking patients to pay a monthly membership fee—from $50 to $130—to access a host of health care services, including unlimited telehealth visits and in-office tests. In 2020, the practice became profitable after Jones partnered with the City of East Orange to provide COVID-19 testing and care for the city’s first responders and nursing home residents. This, plus his willingness to make home visits to people with suspected COVID-19 cases, brought more awareness—and patients—to KinFolk. “During COVID, a lot of people didn’t have access to their health care provider,” Jones says.
For KinFolk’s next iteration, Jones says he’ll draw on the lessons learned these last few years. He expects the practice will be more mobile—think home visits or a pop-up office at local businesses—and therefore more sustainable.
Jones plans to keep the membership model, and he’ll accept only Medicaid and Medicare insurance. To ensure that Kinfolk is accessible to everyone, Jones is establishing partnerships with discounted labs and affordable pharmacies and contracting with a company that provides e-consults with specialists.
“It’s a labor of love for the community,” Jones says. The first iteration of KinFolk was a good start, he adds, speaking from his East Orange home while celebrating his son’s 5th birthday. “Now, let’s go ahead and perfect this model.”