A passion for family medicine

Medical student Seneca Harberger was named a 2014 Pisacano Scholar.

For fourth-year medical student Seneca Harberger, medicine runs in the family. Aaron Windhorst | TTN
For fourth-year medical student Seneca Harberger, medicine runs in the family. Aaron Windhorst | TTN

Seneca Harberger did not always want to be a doctor.

Now a fourth-year medical student, Harberger is a recipient of the $28,000 Pisacano Scholar Award, an honor that was given to only seven fourth-year medical students across the country identified as future leaders in family medicine.

“When I was a kid, becoming a doctor wasn’t anything that I considered,” Harberger said. “I think that I had an opposition to it because it felt like I was just going along with my family. It wasn’t a real choice of something that I wanted to do until I was teaching.”

Harberger said his family exposed him to the medical world while he was growing up in York.

Harberger’s father, a family doctor, had his own practice in York, while his mother worked as a nurse practitioner. Harberger said that his brother followed their example and became a family doctor as well.

After graduating college with a physics degree, Harberger pursued a teaching career at EXCEL High School in West Oakland, California. During his time working there, he realized the students were struggling not only with education, but also with health issues.

“Not everyone was sick, but I don’t know if there was a single kid whose family did not have a single health issue related to them,” Harberger said. “West Oakland and Philadelphia have very similar health outcomes in underserved communities. There were a lot of food deserts, low nutrition and poor access to primary care in the area.”

Harberger said it was apparent that his students were struggling and felt like he could do more to help people in the community.

“You see people who are really fantastic at teaching, and I saw colleagues where that was really their niche,” Harberger said. “My students were struggling with education, and there was a huge way I could have intervened, but I saw other issues in their lives and their families’ lives where I thought I could be more effective.”

With this mindset, Harberger enrolled in Temple’s School of Medicine in 2011. Through his studies, he began to realize that the family medicine specialty was not a popular choice for students.

“If there’s a choice to either go see an open heart surgery one afternoon or work in the clinic to help patients with high blood pressure, most students would pick the surgery,” Harberger said. “Family medicine has a lot of trouble attracting people to that path because it is not the most sexy stuff.”

Harberger, on the other hand, said he enjoys the “unsexy” aspects of family medicine.

“Family medicine may not help like trauma can when someone gets shot,” Harberger said, “But I can help them afterwards to make sure that they’re getting their care. Also, though violence is a problem in Philadelphia, high blood pressure and diabetes affect way more people, so it is important that the family doctor focuses on those things.”

Concurrent with his medical degree, Harberger is pursuing a Master of Arts in Urban Bioethics, with a thesis focused on health issues affecting North Philadelphia’s homeless population.

“[Harberger’s] future patients will be very lucky,” said Nora Jones, the Director of Bioethics Education. “He was in two of my introductory seminars and was simply phenomenal.”

Jones said that Harberger always visualizes how doctors can change the health care system and become some of the best providers for the underserved population.

“He is one of those practitioners that has a holistic view of patients and where they are in the healing process,” Jones said. “He is very thoughtful and is, of course, inclusive of other students.”

Harberger has worked with other Temple University Medical students in service projects geared toward the underserved North Philadelphia community. He said he sees many different medical attitudes in the area.

“We have attitudes in medicine that interprets behavior based on our own experience,” Harberger said. “For example, I’m a middle-class white guy from central Pennsylvania, so I may have a different reason for skipping an appointment than a single mother living in North Philadelphia. It’s important that we understand the reasons behind that.”

Harberger served as a coordinator for both the Temple Emergency Action Corps’ Homelessness Initiative (TEAC) and the ‘Stop MRSA’ study through Temple University’s Emergency Department.

As a coordinator in TEAC, Harberger served men’s shelters that focused on mental health and substance abuse.

“Our overall goal was to promote health literacy,” Harberger said. “Instead of telling patients to stop living unhealthy lifestyles, we asked questions like, ‘What do you eat every day?’ Or we said things like, ‘I know that you don’t eat fruits and vegetables, but what’s preventing you from doing that?’ It was great because we saw the patients on a weekly basis. We were able to get comfortable with them and get to know them individually.”

Through the ‘Stop MRSA’ program, Harberger and other students treated underserved patients and distributed free antibiotics.

“We got to help people who do not have good resources outside of the ER,” Harberger said. “For me, these are the patients that I want to interact with who are struggling with the medical care.”

Harberger continued servicing even more patients when he was on rotation at the Community Volunteers in Medicine, a non-profit primary care, medical and dental clinic serving the needs of the uninsured and underinsured residents of Chester County, Pennsylvania.

“[Harberger] came on a fourth-year rotation and was such a natural teacher,” said Dr. Mary Wirshup, the Vice President of Medical Affairs at CVM. “He’s the best candidate in family practice that I’ve seen in years.”

Wirshup said that Harberger’s commitment to direct patient care reflects the reputation of Temple’s Medical School.

“Temple Medical School is outstanding because it focuses so much on patient care,” Wirshup said. “[Harberger] is a student that does this and should be commended. He is definitely a future leader in medicine.”

Seneca hopes that he can inspire others to be leaders in family medicine through winning the Pisacano Scholar award.

“I wanted to apply to show that leaders in family medicine are not just leaders because of their innovations,” Harberger said. “If I think about what my dad was doing in his office, he was a leader in family medicine because he led his patients to better choices and showed them what was important. Family med doctors will always leaders because of that.”

Sienna Vance can be reached at sienna.vance@temple.edu

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