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HL20: Aaron Shirley, MD—Driving Force Behind Health Houses

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media, January 2, 2013

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is the story of Aaron Shirley, MD.

This profile was published in the December, 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

 "I hear a lot about studies but the people here have been studied enough. They need medical care."

Aaron Shirley, MD, a retired Jackson, Miss., pediatrician, believes that a primary healthcare model developed in Iran can be used to improve the health of the residents of Mississippi's poverty-stricken Delta Region.

The Iranian health house model is an integrated network that includes hospitals, primary care facilities and "health houses" in Iran's poor rural communities. Services are provided by community health workers who live in and know the localities they serve.

Shirley has spent a lifetime developing programs and outreach for the poor in Mississippi. He was a civil rights activist, the only African-American pediatrician in Mississippi at one time, and the first African-American resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In the 1960s, he worked at the first community health center in the Mississippi Delta. He is credited with installing wells to provide clean drinking water in the area. In 1993, Shirley was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, (an award often referred to as a genius grant)  for his healthcare leadership.

In the mid-1990s he worked with a group to transform a failing shopping center into a medical mall that provides health services to the poor. In 2009 on a trip to Iran, Shirley witnessed the Iranian health house system firsthand.

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