Healing the homeless

Spurring recovery the avocation of Raleigh cardiologist

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. [04.23.04] — Dr. Robert Bilbro began his volunteer work in the orphanages of Korea.

Today, his volunteering continues with an effort to give homeless men in Raleigh a hand up from addiction.

An internist with an emphasis on cardiology who co-founded The Raleigh Medical Group, Bilbro is chair-elect of the board of The Healing Place of Wake County, a nonprofit residential recovery program that is free for homeless men struggling with addiction.

He also volunteers his medical services as part of a volunteer team of other doctors and nurses at the Healing Place, which plans by the end of the year to break ground on a facility for women.

Residents stay at the center free of charge for seven to nine months, on average, while receiving treatment for and education about their addictions.

They also receive medical care, peer counseling, skills training and intensive support to help them get back into society.

Bilbro calls the results over the three years since the facility opened  “extraordinary,” with more than 70 percent of the 180 men who have completed the curriculum remaining clean and sober.

“It’s inspiring to see it happen and be a part of it,” he says.

Bilbro, who will become board chair in July, began his journey as a volunteer in 1968, when he was deployed to Korea during his residency for a year-long assignment.

With his wife and two young children remaining in the U.S., he volunteered his off-duty hours to provide immunizations and tuberculosis screenings and treatments for Korean orphans.

Since then, he has co-founded and worked 15 years, mostly part-time, with the Medical Teaching Service, a program at WakeMed that educates medical students and residents and serves the poor, among others.

“It’s an important part of caring for the indigent and a valuable part of clinical care,” he says.

He also added a new dimension to cardiac care in the mid-1970s by introducing structured exercise as an important part of rehabilitation and wellness for heart patients.

When hospitals balked at the notion, Bilbro co-founded the Raleigh Cardiovascular Foundation, which started an outpatient exercise program for cardiac patients, and became its medical director.

Once hospitals adopted the idea and began developing their own outpatient centers, the foundation sold its program and equipment to Raleigh Community Hospital and used the proceeds to fund an exhibit at the Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education in Raleigh.

In 1985, he co-founded Carolina Physicians’ Health Plan, a physician-run HMO that later became Healthsource and was sold to Cigna in 1997.

Later, in an attempt to address what he calls “the ‘corporatization’ of health care,” where business concerns tend to overshadow clinical care, Bilbro and colleagues started Patient’s Choice, a network of some 2,500 Triangle area doctors that contract for their services directly with employers.

While the idea is catching on slowly, his practice has adopted the plan and saved 31 percent over previous insurance premiums in the first year, Bilbro says, while maintaining high standards of care.

“The bottom line,” he says, “ought to be patient care, not profitability.”

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