A physician renowned for delivering compassionate, skilled care to the homeless living on the streets of Boston spoke about his work and the role of health care for the underprivileged during a recent discussion at McKibbon Lecture Hall on the Health Sciences Campus.

James O’Connell, MD, spoke to Keck School of Medicine of USC students as part of USC Visions and Voices, a university-wide arts and humanities initiative established in 2006 that provides the USC community with events aimed at expanding knowledge and perspectives.

O’Connell discussed the challenges facing health care professionals trying to treat homeless patients, many of whom are suffering from severe, life-threatening illnesses and are hesitant to receive care. There are an estimated 46,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles County each night, according to a report issued in May by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“You can do remarkable things if you think creatively,” O’Connell said to the group of about 75 medical students. “People were not coming to us for treatment, so we had to go to them where they were most comfortable. We had to figure out ways to care for them.”

O’Connell started serving the homeless in 1985 when he founded the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Today, an interdisciplinary team of professionals, including psychiatrists, primary care physicians and homeless advocates, staff outpatient clinics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Medical Center, along with providing services at more than 60 shelters and homeless outreach centers across the city. O’Connell and his team also make nightly rounds in a van, roaming the city’s streets and searching under bridges, darkened stoops, alleyways and parks in search of homeless in need of medical care.

“From a public health perspective, the people who are most vulnerable to dying are those who live outside,” he said. “We realized that if we want to help those folks, we had to find ways to reach them.”

O’Connell said he and his team reach about 12,000 patients each year.

“Sometimes engagement can take a long time, but the rewards are remarkable,” he said.

O’Connell book, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, was published in 2015.

— Douglas Morino