When it comes to spinning a good yarn, few physicians can compare to Dr. Joseph Prows, a family physician with an amazing appreciation for stories. Whether shared with him by patients or told by him to, well, just about anybody, it’s the stories of people’s lives and the connections that get made that characterize a career spent in the service of others. “I’ve loved every medical rotation I have ever been on because of the sheer variety of people’s stories and the unpredictability of what I might be able to help with next,” Prows states.
Prows is very passionate about serving the underserved—people whose stories include situations that may be both medically challenging and socially complex. It’s an interest that may stem, in part, from his time spent at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. “When you’re working in a full-on disaster environment like Katrina, it forces you to be smart about medicine,” he explains. “But it also helps you to empathize with patients on a whole other level.”
That keen desire to care for these unique populations served him well during his residency at the Alaska Family Medicine Program in Anchorage, Alaska, where he focused on caring for the homeless and Medicaid populations as well as socially complex patients in rural southeast Alaska communities. “I spent a lot of time out in the bush, so the ability to deliver a very broad spectrum of family medicine services in rural settings was a priority,” says Prows. “Some of their stories…the challenges they face in both their health and just operating in society…they break your heart.”
“I’ve loved every medical rotation I have ever been on because of the sheer variety of people’s stories and the unpredictability of what I might be able to help with next.”
In 2013, Prows brought that heart for people and his medical expertise to Associates in Family Medicine’s West office, providing a wide array of services including family care, pediatrics, prenatal/obstetric care, women’s health, dermatology, preventive medicine, and men’s health. The move occurred when his wife, Emily, was offered an associate professor position at Colorado State University. Her areas of focus include Native American art history, Southeast Alaska art history, and (coincidentally) the strong oral tradition associated with these cultures. In other words, storytelling.
Prows believes strongly that context and back story are critical to establishing trust and a connection with patients. “It’s really fundamental to how I practice,” he says. “In my opinion, it’s not good medicine to just tell patients ‘do this and you’ll get better’ without an explanation, empathy, and investment in them as a person. I’m told by patients that I spend more time listening to them learning their stories than any doctor they have ever seen.” He continues, “When I’m talking to patients, I have to be careful because I get so into the conversation that I often don’t want it to end. Obviously, I can’t spend half an hour chatting with every patient, but I really focus on being fully present and attentive during the time I’m with them.”
In some ways, he attributes his penchant for storytelling to his time spent in Alaska. “The connections you build in small-town Alaska are really important to get you through those long winters,” he explains. “If you’ve ever seen the TV show Northern Exposure, it’s a lot like that. The people, the food, the beer, the art—they are the shared experiences that all contribute to really authentic relationships. Yes, people are quirky and odd, but everyone knows it and that’s okay. It’s all so interesting and somehow, it all just works.”