Samuel Ho, M76, arrived at the Tufts University School of Medicine four decades ago on a mission: to improve health care for underserved people. He would go on to design his own program of study in family medicine and, with other students, offer free screenings and referrals for the Greater Boston community at a center in Chinatown. “I remember the gratitude that met us,” Ho recalled. “It meant something that we were there. Showing up, showed we cared.”
Now Ho’s moral compass has brought him back full circle to the School of Medicine, where his philanthropy will give generations of students similar opportunities to serve the underserved. His recent $5.65 million gift will endow the Tufts Student Service Scholars (TS3) program—a training ground for leaders dedicated to transforming health care in partnership with communities—and ensure its future in perpetuity. In honor of his extraordinary support, the TS3 program will be renamed the Sam W. Ho Health Justice Scholars Program.
Program Director Keith Nokes, assistant professor of Family Medicine, said the gift will enrich experiences for participating students—now 12 per class, and 47 in total—but its benefits will also extend across the medical school, the health sciences community, and the larger university, fostering new collaborations and partnerships. “This gift shows a commitment on the part of Dr. Ho, and of Tufts, to the program and the philosophy around it,” Nokes said. “Service is a core value of Tufts, and it resonates with the mission of the medical school: we’re here to provide the best care to all communities, but with particular attention to the needs of underserved populations.”
A longtime donor to the School of Medicine annual fund, Ho also previously partnered with the school to endow the Sam W. Ho, M.D., M76, Scholarship Fund, which supports students interested in primary care, especially in locations where there aren’t enough doctors. And he said it was not a difficult decision to expand his commitment to a program that reflects his personal values and those of the university. “For me to be able to pay it forward and to contribute to that legacy of service and scholarship, in a way that will directly help student lives and careers—and their communities—is extremely gratifying,” he said.
Ho’s most recent gift gives the program a financial bedrock—but it will also have deeper institutional impact. Funding will catalyze ideas, discussions, and learning through a strengthened curriculum, lectures, and other avenues, all of which reinforce the principles that guide a calling to merge medicine with social justice.
“This focus goes back to the characteristics that I’ve learned during the past 40 years,” Ho said. Growing up in Hawaii, he was surrounded by a keen sense of how social context shapes access to care. His father, also a physician, often received food—“chickens, cakes, vegetables”—as payment from his patients. After earning his undergraduate degree at Northwestern, his drive to put his values to work in a meaningful way led him to the Tufts University School of Medicine. “I knew that health care was unevenly distributed,” he said. “It was a matter of being motivated to do what I could. Tufts nurtured my ability to be the physician I envisioned becoming.”
He went on to a career that would significantly improve health-care access and quality in the communities he served. In San Francisco, he founded a multidisciplinary clinic in the city’s most underserved neighborhood, and would later become the deputy director of health, medical director, and county health officer for the city’s department of public health. Expanding his impact even further, he created the nation’s first public report card of physician performance in clinical quality and cost-efficiency in 1998, and the nation’s first value-based payment program in 2001. Most recently he was chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare, responsible for the clinical, cost, and experience outcomes of 50 million beneficiaries across the United States.
Today, he remains uncompromising in his philosophy about fundamental health-care reforms. He calls for nothing less than a holistic, integrated perspective that takes into account the inherent complexity of individual, community, and population health.
“We need to do more than just close the gaps in American health care—we have to transform it in a way that is qualitatively and quantitatively different,” Ho said. “Medical students coming out of this program will not only have the skill set and tools to improve American health care in underserved communities; they will also help transform it so it becomes more patient centered and less provider centered. That means making it evidence-based, more multidisciplinary, more preventive, and always sensitive to the contexts of community and population health.”
These are themes exemplified by the Sam W. Ho Health Justice Scholars Program, and by participating students like Emily Geldwert, M19. She arrived at the School of Medicine with field experience in public health, including work in Africa, and a master of public health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She saw in the TS3 program the opportunity to continue on her path; one summer she designed and facilitated group visits for patients entering addiction recovery; she has also worked on a hotline supporting those within the LGBQ/T community who are experiencing partner abuse.
Geldwert is now looking forward to a residency in family medicine at Boston Medical Center. She credits her experience at the School of Medicine with keeping her focused, energized, and optimistic about her life goals. “What makes the program special is that we’re not going at it alone or isolated,” she said. “Dr. Ho understands that this kind of work requires continuous effort. That’s why it’s so great that now, thanks to his gift, this program will live on forever, allowing for constant innovation and support for change.”