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Pioneering spirit still alive with 2001 COM grad

DuncanThe punishment of incarceration comes with a stigma that will likely always be part of an inmate’s experience. 

A similar stigma has often been attached to people working within prisons, in addition to corrections officers. 

David A Duncan, D.O., FAAFP, CDR, USPHS, Clinical Director, Federal Corrections Institute, Dublin, is hoping to pioneer change when it comes to that stigma for health care professionals working inside prisons. 

Dr. Duncan, a member of the Touro University California COM graduating class of 2001 – affectionately known as the Pioneers – has taken Touro’s message of service to heart. Dr. Duncan served in the Navy for 10 years, completing flight school and an aviation physiology program as well as a Family Medicine Residency, later becoming Senior Medical Officer and flight surgeon with the Coast Guard in Alameda. 

After his experiences with military service, Dr. Duncan went on to serve humanity in a different way at FCI Dublin, beginning in 2014. It was there that Dr. Duncan discovered the heart of what Touro calls healthcare disparities. 

“This is, as a whole, the most underserved and at-risk population,” Dr. Duncan said. “It is still my overall favorite and most rewarding population – which came as a complete surprise.”

FCI Dublin has been an all-female prison for a little over 7 years – housing some of the most infamous female inmates in the nation’s recent history, like Patty Hearst, would-be Gerald Ford assassin Sara Jane Moore, and the so-called Hollywood Madame, Heidi Fleiss. 

But far from the TV cameras that brought those inmates into people’s living rooms, FCI Dublin, which is one of just four female-only federal prisons and the only one west of the Rockies, is home to more than 1,200 women, who come from all walks of life and experience a full range of health issues, Dr. Duncan said. 

Having served in several different prisons with security levels as high as Federal Penitentiaries, he describes the overall experience as “very sobering”, though he’s also quick to point out, “I felt an even higher level of appreciation” from his incarcerated patients as from those in his other assignments.

Being a federal employee and outside of the healthcare industry has some drawbacks, like a slightly lower pay scale than a doctor might expect in the private sector. However, the freedom from the types of hassles that are inherent in the private healthcare sector are more than worth it to Dr. Duncan. 

“I don’t have the pressure to see 30 patients a day to justify my existence,” he said. “I’m never sweating over receiving a negative Yelp! Review.  Instead, his service within the prison allows Dr. Duncan to do the thing that attracts most to the medical professions: treating patients. 

Even that has a stigma of its own, which Dr. Duncan is also working to nullify. 

“My motivation to work is giving my patients the care they need,” Dr. Duncan said. “And what these patients need is a qualified primary care provider who listens to them and doesn’t believe that being deprived medical care is part of their punishment.”

Many of the inmates – crimes notwithstanding – have suffered greatly as it is through their lives with poverty, poor education, poor diets, substance abuse and sexual violence, which Dr. Duncan estimated to be as high as 75 percent of the female inmate population. Touro, in fact, could well be positioned to be a pioneer itself, he suggested. The Masters of Public Health program has recently added a Health Equity and Criminal Justice track which focuses on, “the intersection of health and the US justice system.” 

The HECJ track has a requirement that students complete a field study in either a California correctional facility or a community-based organization that serves people with a history of incarceration. 

Dr. Duncan said he was “thrilled” to hear about the new track, saying, “That is probably the best way to recruit providers of all types into this line of work.  Providers need to know about the tremendous need and satisfaction that goes with serving the most vulnerable patients in our midst: the incarcerated.”

TUC visits FCI Dublin video