Dr. Sidney Garfield’s childhood dream of being an architect was shattered when his Jewish Russian immigrant parents insisted he become a doctor. Little did the young Garfield know that his destiny was not only to become a doctor but also to blaze trails few others had even dared to ponder.
Indeed, 25 years after Garfield’s death, President Barack Obama points to the medical care program Garfield founded as a model for 21st Century health care reform, author Tom Debley said in his talk to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Aug. 25.
Debley, author of a new Garfield biography, described the extraordinary life of the pioneering Kaiser Permanente doctor in the book, Dr. Sidney R Garfield: the Visionary Who Turned Sick Care into Health Care. “Most people know very little of Sidney Garfield, and I try to remedy this with my book (written in collaboration with Jon Stewart),” Debley told the crowd.
Debley recounted Garfield’s 20th Century journey from his birth in 1906 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the 1950s and 1960s battles to gain acceptance for a different type of medical care.
Garfield’s formula for the best health care emphasized ways to keep people free of disease and thus not needing sick care. In 1933, Garfield found he could provide affordable care to the workers on the Colorado River aqueduct project by collecting weekly dues to cover all members whether they required care or not.
“After nearly going broke, Garfield linked two ideas from the debate of his era – prepayment and prevention – in a way that reversed medical economics,” Debley, director of Heritage Resources for Kaiser Permanente, told the Commonwealth Club audience.
“In 1938, he joined forces with (industrialist Henry J) Kaiser and his son Edgar at the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam. Here Garfield added the ideas of group medical practice, facilities under one roof, and a family plan,” Debley said.
In the War years, Garfield reunited with the Kaisers to provide medical care for workers in Kaiser’s Pacific Coast shipyards and the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California. “In a mere 18 months, he and his colleagues opened four hospitals and built the largest civilian medical care program on the Home Front of World War II.”
When the War ended in 1945, Garfield and Kaiser were able to keep their health plan alive by opening up to the public and taking care of union members such as the longshoremen and the steel workers. Soon enough, the University of California, public schools, other government and large employers picked up Kaiser Permanente care for their employees.
“Sidney Garfield was a doer – his is a classic American story – a man passionate about his calling and determined in his quest. Like his ideas or not, he and Henry Kaiser brought health care to millions of Americans – more than any two individuals I can think of in American history,” Debley told the group.
But, wait, the story isn’t over yet. In the 1950s when Garfield’s run as medical director ended, he resurrected his youthful fantasy to be a builder. Garfield created designs for new Kaiser Permanente hospitals that won him national acclaim.
“Three hospitals opened in 1953 –in Walnut Creek, San Francisco, and Los Angeles – were labeled ‘dream hospitals.’ Dr. Walter C. Alvarez, perhaps America’s most famous physician of the era, told broadcaster Lowell Thomas: ‘A new day has dawned, where more brains will go into the design and architecture of a hospital.’
“Newscaster Chet Huntley reported: “The use of labor-saving devices, the use of light (both natural and artificial), the gadgets, the décor, and the personnel are all combined to make the new (Los Angeles) Kaiser Foundation Hospital something special,’ ” Debley said.
Still, Garfield was not done. In 1960, he insisted Kaiser Permanente embrace the computer whose development was in its infancy. “Garfield saw computers as a component of a ‘total health’ system of care,” Debley noted. Garfield’s early vision has allowed Kaiser Permanente to become an international leader in the field of electronic medical records and other IT systems.
All in a day’s work for Sidney Garfield.
– Ginny McPartland
To order your copy of Debley’s book, Dr. Sidney R Garfield: the Visionary Who Turned Sick Care into Health Care, go to The Permanente Press.
To view the talk on FORA.tv, go to Commonwealth Club.