A doctor who caters to celebrities changed her plans to focus on helping the poorest parts of Philadelphia battle the coronavirus

  • Dr. Ala Stanford was running a concierge medicine business whose patients included Hollywood actor Will Smith. 
  • When the coronavirus started spreading across America, Stanford saw that Black Americans were being hit hardest.
  • She created a program that offered free testing right in people's neighborhoods.
  • Now, she wants to focus the future of her career on helping low-income people.
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This was the year Dr. Ala Stanford was supposed to start thinking about what she wanted the rest of her career to look like. 

At age 49, the pediatric surgeon was leaning toward moving full-time to the concierge medicine business she built in Philadelphia, which would mean ceasing to perform surgeries. Referrals were coming in from her famous patients, including Hollywood actor Will Smith.

The idea of making a change was attractive, as she'd be able to focus on just five patients and their families. 

"That would have been enough to allow me to still be a mom, take care of them, be a wife — and that's it," Stanford said.

She didn't know heading into 2020 that the needs exposed by the coronavirus pandemic would make her decide to spend the remainder of her career on an option she hadn't considered: creating a free clinic in Philadelphia.

But when she saw the virus disproportionately hitting Black communities, she knew she had to help by providing free testing right in people's neighborhoods. She gathered a team of volunteers and used her savings to make it happen. 

Eventually, she was able to get funding from the city to continue providing testing regularly and founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. On a busy day the group tests 400 people. Patients get their results within 48 hours.

'They're not actually looking you in the eye'

Dr. Ala Stanford founded REAL Concierge Medicine, Co., a boutique medical provider that treats Hollywood actors and business executives.Courtesy REAL Concierge MedicineStanford had a similar upbringing to the patients she now treats.

When she was a child growing up in North Philadelphia, her mom would leave for work before she and her brother woke up and would come home as they were going to bed. Yet, she said, her parents seemed to never have enough money.

When Stanford needed medical forms filled out for school, her family would have to go to the emergency department because it was the only place open on weekends. 

"I know what it feels like to be a patient going to the doctor where someone's rushing through to take care of you," Stanford said. "They're not actually looking you in the eye. They're not actually sitting down. They're not really concerned about what's going on in your life. They're just here so they can sign off and discharge you."

One of the big reasons Stanford went into medicine was that, despite the discrimination she felt at the doctor's, she also noticed physicians had nice cars and clothing, and seemed happy. 

"I was tired of being poor," she said.

Her path to becoming a doctor was helped by the fact that she was a gifted student who loved studying science. Medicine — and surgery in particular — was the only field that challenged her. 

Read more: The coronavirus is devastating communities of color. The Trump administration's top doctor blames 'structural racism' and shares his plans to take action.

She specialized in pediatric surgery. Then, eight years ago, Stanford founded REAL Concierge Medicine, Co., a boutique medical provider that treats Hollywood actors and business executives. By seeing high-income patients, she was also able to see patients with small or no incomes. She blocks off one-hour visits for both.

"I realized that poor, rich, whomever, everyone just wants to be valued and someone to take the time to listen to what's really happening with them," she said. "The care I give to Will Smith is the same care I give to someone in North Philly. It's no different. I am empathetic and I'm listen."

Read more: This doctor is helping Biden prepare for a White House victory. Her focus on a $238 billion problem could shape healthcare's future.

Keeping the momentum in Philadelphia

Stanford is hoping she can contribute to a testing overhaul in Philadelphia.

The city has premiere hospitals, and Stanford said testing should be available on nights and weekends when people don't have work. She said the city needs to better coordinate its resources because BDCC can't be in every neighborhood, and she wants everyone to have access to testing. 

If older adults and healthcare workers get testing priority, then Black people should as well because in some parts of the US they have a death rate six times higher than whites, she said. 

"We need to be part of a solution to a healthier America for all Americans," Stanford said. "And if one group is hurting more particularly in the pandemic, resources need to go to that group."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the reasons Black Americans have been hit hardest is because they're more likely to be poor, have chronic conditions, live in crowded spaces, and have jobs that expose them to the virus. 

Now, when Stanford thinks about the next phase of her career, she wants to spend it in a free clinic for low-income patients that she'll call the Black Doctors Consortium Center. She realized she didn't want her testing group to be only a band-aid for the coronavirus pandemic, but wanted to address problems that disproportionately hit the Black community, from diabetes to hypertension. 

She could see herself doing that into her 60s then passing it on when she retires to "someone who is as passionate as I am about it." 

"I know what it feels like to be marginalized and for someone to have a bias about you that may not be true cause they don't take the time to get to know you," Stanford said. "I just wanted people in the midst of this to not feel the same way that I had felt." 

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