Follow UA Family Physician Paul Gordon on his Bike Trip Across America

Sunday, May 1, 2016

When the Affordable Care Act is in the news, it’s usually politicians or prominent health-care policy “wonks” doing the talking. Paul Gordon, MD, MPH – professor and former chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson – wants to know what other folks have to say; specifically, those who live in rural America, where their voices are seldom heard beyond town lines.

On Thursday, April 21, Dr. Gordon flew to Washington, D.C., and picked up his bicycle and gear, which he shipped ahead. The next day he began a two-month bicycle tour from the nation’s capital to Seattle, stopping daily to learn what people think of “Obamacare.” He’s not looking for physicians or people enrolled in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), although he will not exclude them from being interviewed. He will not disclose what he thinks of the ACA, and he will not try to correct anyone who makes an inaccurate statement about the Act. He simply wants to hear and record people’s thoughts.

“My plan is to arrive in a small town, find that small café that I expect many rural towns still have, walk in, introduce myself to whoever is sitting there, and ask if they would be willing to talk to me,” he said.

The idea came to Dr. Gordon a year ago when he was on a backpacking vacation in the Grand Canyon with his wife, Tucson pediatrician Eve Shapiro, MD, and their children. A cyclist since high school, he’s wanted for 40 years or more to do a cross-country bike tour, but kept putting the idea on hold because of other obligations.

“So when the thought of riding across the country came up again, the challenge was to find an appropriate sabbatical activity that would fit with it,” said Dr. Gordon, who has been with the UA College of Medicine – Tucson and the Department of Family and Community Medicine since 1989. “The question about the Affordable Care Act always has been of interest to me, so the two seemed to meet.”

Also cycling for part of the tour will be Dr. Shapiro and Laurel Gray, first-year medical student at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. Gray will start her leg of the Bike Listening Tour after she finishes classes in early June. She will fly to her hometown of Minneapolis and proceed on her bike to Seattle. She plans to return to Tucson in late June to begin her second year of medical school.

Gray is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State University, where she majored in global health, with a focus on medical anthropology. She learned about health-care disparities by working as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Casa Marianella, an emergency shelter for immigrants and asylum seekers in Austin, Texas. She helped them find health insurance and providers willing to care for them for reduced cost – work that inspired her to expand her skill set by becoming a physician.

“I’m really excited about this project,” she said of the Bike Listening Tour. “I want to know what the general population is facing in terms of barriers to care. And as an anthropologist, I’m just generally very curious about what people think about health care. 

“I think listening is one of the most important things we do as physicians,” she said. “I am hoping this experience will make me a better doctor.”

The journal Academic Medicine has invited Dr. Gordon to submit a commentary summarizing his experience, and Gray plans to write for submission to Academic Medicine and other peer-reviewed journals. People can follow the cyclists on the blog they have set up: Dr. Gordon is posting about his experiences daily, and is happy to answer questions from readers.