Doctors meeting here to consider street peoples' needs

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Doctors from the United States and other countries will gather in Pittsburgh this week for a unique conference dedicated to the needs of homeless people living on the streets.

More than 60 people, most of them physicians specializing in the care of homeless people, are expected to attend the International Street Medicine Symposium, a four-day conference that begins Wednesday.

The idea for the symposium came from Dr. James Withers, medical director and founder of Operation Safety Net. The program, which provides medical care and other services to homeless people living on the city's streets, is sponsoring the symposium along with the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.

Withers, who has often visited medical programs serving homeless people in other communities, said he felt medical providers serving those people would benefit from getting together to share ideas and develop working relationships.

Experts said the symposium is apparently the nation's first to focus solely on the medical treatment of homeless people who live on the street.

"This conference will provide an invaluable first step in calling attention to the challenges and barriers of caring for those living on the streets of our cities," said Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless program.

The keynote speaker is Dr. Jack Preger of the Calcutta Rescue program in India. He began providing free medical treatment to the poor in Calcutta from a street clinic in 1979.

The conference also will include presentations from an 18-member guest faculty from cities around the nation, Puerto Rico and Chile.

Withers said goals for the conference including developing working relationships among leaders in street medicine and comparing strategies for medical practice.

The conference also hopes to identify the philosophical basis for street medicine; define the role of medical education in street medicine practice; review ongoing collaborative projects; and set goals for future collaboration.

A textbook on street medicine could be one outcome of future joint efforts, Withers said, noting that best practice guidelines for street medicine have yet to be established.

While many chronically homeless people struggle with mental illness or drug addiction, the people recently left homeless by Hurricane Katrina also underscore the need to better respond to people suddenly left without resources, he said.

Joe Fahy can be reached at or 412-263-1722


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