One of the first patients Robert Hecht, MD, FACOG saw at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center was a young woman with a ruptured tubal pregnancy. She was in pain, bleeding heavily, and near death at the time of admittance. He would later learn that the woman had waited days to see a doctor because she was uninsured. It was a moment that would stick with Dr. Hecht for the rest of his career.
“Seeing her in that situation—almost dying from something we could fix with a 30 minute surgery – was extremely impactful,” he recalls. “It really drove home this country’s problems with access to care. I knew that I wanted to help.”
That patient encounter, and the ones that would follow, ignited Dr. Hecht’s desire and interest to care for the underserved. Today, he advocates for them as a volunteer at the Caridad Center, the largest free clinic in the state of Florida, and as a member of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) District XII Committee on Healthcare for Underserved Women.
Finding Purpose and Perspective in the Bronx
Dr. Hecht’s career began 25 years ago as an Obstetrics and Gynecology resident at the New York Hospital Cornell University Medical Center. It was a specialty that the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons graduate never imagined but one that he fell in love with as a medical student.
“OB/GYN was the best of both worlds,” he said. “You have the excitement of the operating room and the continuity of long term patient relationships. You also utilize a wide range of skills and procedures, ranging in complexity from very basic to extremely sophisticated.”
After residency, Dr. Hecht spent the next 16 years in private practice in Pomona and Monroe, New York, where he specialized in minimally invasive gynecologic surgery. During that time, he also served as Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern New York, where he spearheaded safety initiatives and quality improvement projects. Despite a successful career, he traded in the New York suburbs for city life in 2011 to direct the Women’s Health Center at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in Bronx, New York. He oversaw both the main hospital and its satellite clinics, which provided 70,000 outpatient visits annually.
>> Learn more about AUC’s Hospital Affiliation with Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center
The transition to Bronx-Lebanon, the largest voluntary nonprofit healthcare system serving the South and Central Bronx, was jarring at first but Dr. Hecht grew to appreciate the new set of challenges. In Bronx, unlike Pomona and Monroe, he had an extremely diverse set of patients with varying levels of trust in and experience with the local healthcare system. Many were uninsured and spent the majority of their lives without basic healthcare.
“I was treating a lot of patients who weren’t able to get their health issues dealt with earlier on,” he recalls. “There was a lot of end-stage disease.”
While at Bronx-Lebanon, Dr. Hecht was also involved in academic medicine. He joined Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s faculty as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and later became the OB/GYN Clerkship Director for American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). He held weekly didactic sessions with medical students and Bronx-Lebanon’s 17 OB/GYN residents, and provided clinical skills training and career guidance.
“Teaching medical students and residents has made me a better physician – you have to understand something at a whole different level to be able to teach it.”
A Move South Creates New Advocacy Opportunities
In 2015, before rejoining AUC, Dr. Hecht relocated to sunny South Florida for a leadership role in public health. He accepted the position of Medical Director and Senior Physician for Family Planning at the Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Broward County and took on the challenge of safeguarding the health of Broward County’s 1.8 million residents and 10 million annual visitors. In addition to providing clinical care at the Broward Family Planning Clinic, he oversaw all of its medical services, including HIV testing and counseling, male and female sterilization, HPV screening, pre-conception counseling, STD counseling and treatment, and pregnancy testing and counseling.
Broward County, like the Bronx, has a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse patient population and a high rate of uninsured (25.9% compared to the national average of 17%), poverty, substance abuse, health illiteracy and persons living with HIV. And because of that, Dr. Hecht saw the same opportunity to make an impact in an underserved community.
He found that opportunity at the Caridad Center, the largest free healthcare clinic of its kind in Florida. The clinic, which started in a trailer in 1992, saw mostly migrant workers until a shift in the 2000s. It now serves mostly uninsured, low-income families who are in need of medical, dental, and vision care. The center has also expanded its outreach services to include mental health counseling, after-school tutoring, emergency assistance with food, rent, and clothing, and college scholarships.
A volunteer dentist checks in on a young patient at Caridad Center in Boynton Beach, FL.
Twice a month, Dr. Hecht volunteers his time with patients and helps to guide the clinic on quality assurance initiatives. When he started, he spent considerable time organizing the women’s health program to make sure it was offering the best care possible. A good part of his work is also helping the Caridad Center find community partners who can provide specialized care, like surgery, to patients in need of more advanced services. So far, the clinic has benefited from a strong and active community support system.
From time to time, Dr. Hecht will meet University of Miami Miller School of Medicine MD-MPH students who can rotate at Caridad Center as a part of their program. He would love to introduce AUC students to Caridad and its network of 400 plus physicians and medical volunteers who see more than 28,000 patients a year.
Asked why he makes time to volunteer at Caridad Center—even as his responsibilities at AUC grow—Dr. Hecht responds that it’s his way of reconnecting with that original desire to go into medicine.
“In the normal pace of a day at a busy clinic or practice, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in charting and all of these other responsibilities that consume your time and attention,” he said. “Being at Caridad, it’s my opportunity to go back to basics and relate with patients on a very human level.”
On the Importance of Finding Your Inner Advocate
For students who want to get involved in volunteer or advocacy work, Dr. Hecht recommends looking first at opportunities through regional and local medical societies. The Palm Beach County Medical Society, for example, is how Dr. Hecht first heard about Caridad Center.
He also suggests national professional societies like the American Academy of Family Physicians and ACOG, where he is part of the District XII Committee on Healthcare for Underserved Women. The committee, which represents the state of Florida, is focused on three big initiatives: increasing pertussis vaccinations in families who have children; raising awareness of HPV and the HPV vaccine; and increasing access to contraception in the immediate postpartum period.
Students interested in ACOG and OB/GYN advocacy can join the organization free of charge. And, as members, they get reduced rates to ACOG meetings and conferences, access to residency support services, lectures, and CV prep workshops, and discounts on official ACOG publications.
Last year, Dr. Hecht brought an AUC Clinical Education Fellow to one of his ACOG District XII meetings. That served as a launching point for the fellow to connect with local health leaders and hear the latest trends in OB/GYN.
Looking toward the future, Dr. Hecht hopes advocacy will always be ingrained in his career. “To me, advocacy constitutes the core of a physician. It’s part of our identity and critical to our mission as healers.”