Alumni Profiles

Helping the Homeless

As an undergraduate at Rutgers and then as a medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Jennifer Tan planned to pursue a career in community health because she wanted to help the underserved. After her rotation in dermatology in medical school, however, Tan DC’02, RWJMS’06 fell in love with the specialty. Not wanting to give up her altruistic reasons for becoming a physician, Tan blended her two interests by creating a career where she can give highly specialized care to some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tan now oversees the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s dermatology clinic, caring for people experiencing homelessness in that city. Her work led the American Academy of Dermatology to name her a “Patient Care Hero” for providing skin care and hygiene items to those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merging interests

While in medical, she was student director of the Homeless and Indigent Population Health Outreach Project (HIPHOP) Community Health Initiative. There, she learned about health disparities while working with physicians and community leaders.

“If not for my experience at RWJ, I wouldn’t have been exposed to or understood the state of poverty in America and what I could do as a doctor to help,” she says. “I’m so proud to be an alumna of a school that has prioritized health care disparities and community health as important components of the curriculum.”

With the right mentorship, she was able to create a path that merged her passions. “During residency, I sought out mentors in both homeless medicine and dermatology to figure out a way to marry those two interests,” she adds.

Now, she splits her time between the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), which cares for several hundred patients each year, and Massachusetts General Hospital. She also teaches residents and students at Harvard Medical School. “I am fortunate to have a career that involves patient care, teaching, and the development of dermatology programs within homeless medicine,” she says.

A community at risk

Studies have found that people experiencing homelessness are especially at risk for bacterial, fungal, and ectoparasitic skin infections. They may also experience inflammatory conditions, traumatic injuries, and other skin issues resulting from long periods of standing or being exposed to the sun. Up to 20 percent of emergency department and community clinic visits from people experiencing homelessness are for skin-related issues.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, BHCHP began distributing skin care kits that included over-the-counter products to address basic needs. But when the pandemic started, the group knew homeless communities could have difficulty accessing hygiene supplies, putting them at more risk for infection. The kits were revamped to provide basic hygiene items, such as soap, hand sanitizer, cleanser, moisturizer, dental care, and information about COVID-19.

The program has distributed more than 1,000 free kits to shelters, clinics, and field hospitals. In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Tan wrote about the initiative’s success to illustrate how the dermatology community can help people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic and beyond.

“All medical care providers can improve the health of marginalized communities,” Tan says. “If I can be an example of how a specialist can contribute towards the broader goal of ending homelessness and inspire others to do the same, then I’ve been successful at my job.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Robert Wood Johnson Medicine.