Flint, MI—Dr. Aisha Harris left Flint, Mich. in pursuit of an engineering career, but she said her hometown always remained just that: her home. More than a decade later, she moved back to Flint—working as a physician instead of an engineer—and now, she’s launching her own clinic in her native community.
Promoting the importance of prevention, educating people about prioritizing their health and improving access to health care are all central to Harris’ medical philosophy. That’s why she has a website, a newsletter and a podcast, called Black Family Doctor, devoted to informing people about health.
And come January 2023, she’ll also open her clinic, Harris Family Health, in downtown Flint.
Harris said her clinic will operate on an alternative model in that rather than billing insurance, it will charge a monthly membership fee for access to care.
“It’s time for Flint to have something a little bit different,” Harris said. “I really just want people who have not been to the doctor in a while to feel like they can do something about it, because you feel helpless when you know that you should be getting something checked up but you can’t.”
From engineering to medicine
It wasn’t until her senior year of college that Harris decided to pursue becoming a doctor. She was studying chemical engineering at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and spent a summer in New Orleans for an internship.
While there, Harris volunteered at a transition home for people with HIV/AIDS. She said that experience sparked her desire to care for patients as a career.
After graduating from UM-Ann Arbor with an engineering degree, Harris went on to medical school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She then completed a family medicine residency at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she learned that one major role of a doctor is patient education.
“You only see so many people in your day-to-day schedule,” Harris said. “I felt like the knowledge I had should be shared a lot more broadly.”
So, to extend her reach, Harris launched BLK FAM DOC, a website for health education content, to help people better understand their health and why it’s critical to have a primary care doctor for regular checkups and screening.
Harris said she’d always viewed herself as community-oriented, but health education and health literacy became more and more important to her as she went through medical school and residency.
She said over the course of her own education, she “realized there was such a gap in people’s understanding.”
A return to Flint
Following her residency, Harris came back to Flint in 2020 to become a family medicine physician at Hamilton Community Health Network.
“I just feel the pull to be a resource for people from where I’m from,” Harris said. “My goal was to absorb all this information [from] all these great institutions and programs, and then bring it back home.”
She then launched her podcast to provide a different medium of health education, producing content she felt was timeless and had a focus on health disparities.
“The Black community specifically is negatively impacted by so many health disparities,” Harris said. “If we are aware of them, people can be a little more motivated to address them or encourage their family members to address them.”
The podcast, she added, serves as a platform for her to have honest and tough dialogues around health and the implications of overlooking it.
“I really wanted to start having harder conversations, particularly conversations with myself, about the things that were making me sad as far as being a primary care doctor,” Harris said. “I just don’t want people to have a detour in their life that they could have changed if they would have just taken care of their health.”
Both the podcast and her newsletter, Flint Health Hub, also underscore the ways in which factors like the environment, education and work are all interconnected with our health, Harris added.
The launch of Harris Family Health
Beyond offering health education to the community, Harris is also pursuing a different model of health care, known as the direct primary care model, through Harris Family Health.
The direct primary care model not only provides an affordable alternative to the traditional model of health care, but it also prioritizes the relationship between the doctor and patient, Harris explained. She added that the monthly service fee offers patients access to unlimited appointments as well as discounted labs and medications at wholesale prices.
The need for her clinic grew out of all that Harris had already experienced along her medical journey.
During her time at Hamilton and the University of Illinois Chicago, Harris said she saw the flaws of traditional health care.
She felt burnt out by overpacked schedules and brief appointment windows with patients, and she watched as insurance companies denied or delayed coverage for various evidence-based treatments.
“It was getting farther away from patient-focused care,” Harris said. “To me, it was getting more into business and billable opportunities.”
Basically, she noted, it was getting “harder and harder to care for patients the way that they deserve to be cared for” as she continued on the traditional medical path.
So, over the course of 2022, Harris began planning for the next chapter of her career, and in September she left Hamilton to officially launch Harris Family Health.
According to Data USA, 5.6 percent of people in Genesee County were uninsured in 2020, and Harris said for those who do have insurance, getting the medical care they need can still pose a big financial burden.
She said her new clinic is meant to give quality care to those who lack access to health care or are seeking a different medical experience.
Direct primary care clinics have grown nationwide over the years, Harris added, noting that while there are a number of them in Michigan, Harris Family Health will be the first in Flint.
“I’m excited about this new chapter for myself and for Flint,” Harris said. “Once people learn about what I’m doing and how much easier they can access care, I think that people are going to look at the health system a lot differently.”