Published elsewhere

Originally published in July/August issue of Minnesota Family Physician – Reflections July 30, 2012

As a family medicine physician, I occasionally find myself in need of medical care.  I am well aware that we are advised not to provide self-care.  Indeed I find it personally difficult to remain objective when my own health or that of a loved one is in question.  In addition to following our ethical guidelines, I have found other benefits to seeking healthcare from my own doctor, not the least of which is getting better.  Experiencing the medical system as a patient is a tremendously effective mechanism for developing empathy.

I have heard patients report on the challenge of reaching a doctor by phone or having a simple question and wanting to have it answered by me, the doctor that examined the problem on its initial presentation.  Listening is a powerful tool in understanding the experience of a patient, arguably being the patient is yet a more powerful tool for understanding how powerful the patient doctor relationship truly is.  It reminds me that we are all patients in our healthcare system.  Any American who seeks care at some point in life will be a patient in our healthcare system, even those of us that are employed through some aspect of this system.   For me this is a powerful motivator to strive for constant improvement in what we do and how we do it.

An unexpected outcome of my doctor visit was having to wear a splint on my hand for 10 days, awaiting a follow-up visit and x-ray.  I quickly remembered as a right hand dominant person, just how many activities during the day require the use of my right hand.  I admit that I just might have a bit of stubborn perseverance.  I found many ways to complete the daily necessary tasks, including typing on an EMR with one hand.  There were nonetheless several tasks that no matter how hard I tried required two hands.  The most surprising of these tasks was putting on my stethoscope.

The Littman Classic II SE apparently is not designed for use by individuals with the use of only one upper extremity.  After several one handed attempts it became clear that putting a stethoscope on with one hand would result in an aggressive and resounding ear piece thwack to my nose.  It wasn’t long before I realized that I could ask my patient for help.  This simple exchange also surprised me.

I as the physician who was being asked for guidance required my patient’s participation in order to do so.  Without exception, the request was received with a pleasant response and a bond of connection.  We were helping each other so that I could help my patients.  It was a small gesture, but a significant one.  I like to think this can serve as a metaphor for us working together with our patients to improve the work we do as family doctors.  I wonder in what ways working with our patients and asking for their help can help us be more successful in improving the health of our patients.

Samuel Hanson Willis, MD

Family Medicine Physician


Originally published in Walker Open Field Blog June 21, 2012

Name: Samuel Hanson Willis
Occupation: Family Medicine Physician and Creative Problem Solver
City/Neighborhood: Windom Park/Minneapolis
Open Field Activity: Better Together: A Collective Drawing Experiment
Description: Draw: “BECOMING BETTER.” Connect with the Open Field community by sharing your ideas about what “becoming better” means to you through the act of drawing. Your drawing will be added to a collection of images by others and assembled into a digital flipbook. As the project evolves it will be visible at Check the website this fall to watch the idea take shape.
Dates of Activity: June 23, 2012 & July 28, 2012 from 2- 5 pm.

1. Fill-in-the-blank: _______________ is what we make together.

 Life is what we make together.

2. What is your favorite public space in the Twin Cities or beyond?

Twins Stadium – I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I just absolutely love being outside with 30,000 plus other people enjoying all that summer baseball at the park means.  Outside of MSP it would definitely be the porticos and piazzas of Bologna – Sunday evening stroll on the Central Plaza is one of life’s great pleasures.

3. What is the perfect Minnesota summer activity?


4. Who do you dream of attending your activity?

Anyone with a little spark of creative drawing energy.  I hope that kids and adults of all ages will contribute a drawing.  The first day coincides with MSP’s GLBT Pride festival, so I hope we’ll have some visitors from Loring park – friends new and old.

 5. What other Open Field activity are you looking forward to this summer?

As many as I can attend.  I’m particularly excited for Art Swap!

6. What is your favorite summer song?

I think that Beck’s “Que Onda Guero” epitomizes the best of summer – come to think of it, I should go dust of the CD, summer has started!

Originally published on Springboard for the arts blog May 4, 2012

In the story of healthcare reform we currently await the deliberations of our U.S. Supreme court as to the constitutional legitimacy of the Affordable Care Act* and what is being referred to as the individual health insurance mandate.  At times this process has seemed to move remarkably fast and at others it has remained mired in process that leaves many wondering how to plan for the future and live in the present.  Throughout the entire process there continue to be dichotomies presented for our consideration.  Is the affordable care act constitutional or not?  Is this a republican plan or a democratic plan?  Is the direction of healthcare reform good or bad?  Is healthcare a right or a privilege?

I would like to present another perspective to consider this last question.  I find that binary choices can be helpful in discussing a concept, but rarely are useful to accurately represent the reality of perspectives that exist.  I believe healthcare is a need, not a right or a privilege.  It is a personal need for the self and it is a need for the community.  In the United States of America we have created a complex often cumbersome system of healthcare finance.  This system is currently not available or relevant to all Americans let alone all people living in our country.  Nonetheless, the amount of infrastructure and effort that has gone into creating this system justifies the proposition that healthcare is a basic human need.  I would suggest that it is not far from food and shelter in our hierarchy of needs.

We need to know that when we feel ill or hurt that there is somewhere we can turn for help.  We need to know that when family or friends feel sick, there are those that can and will help.  I believe our minds even require the knowledge that when we see someone that we don’t know who clearly is ill or hurt we need to know that they are able to get the care that they need.  I would even like to believe that our health is valuable enough that as our other essential needs are met, that we are willing to spend energy to preserve the health we have (although I might be dreaming a bit on this one).  All of you who are taking time to smoke less, eat better, and exercise more are helping to support this dream of mine.

This need is exactly the reason that insurance as a concept carries any weight.  In its initial theory, we pay for insurance not because we need care at that moment but because we need to know that the system will be there for us if we do.  From that initial concept of providing a need through an insurance based financing system, we have gotten far afield and created a complex and cumbersome – somewhat inaccessible model.  As I have said before, I believe the Affordable Care Act moves us in the right direction.  It is not clear to me the best way to structure the finances of healthcare, but it is clear to me the system we have created is not working well.  Regardless of the decision of our Supreme Court, I have no doubt that our country deserves and demands an improved system.  I am certain that I will continue to work towards it and I hope you will consider joining me.

I recently learned of an interesting series of community discussions happening throughout Minnesota. The project is called Citizen Solutions. Perhaps you already have read about it.  These discussions will continue through June in person and online.  You can learn more about this opportunity to help solve one of the most pressing challenges of our state and country at  Perhaps you will take the time to join the conversation and keep it moving.


Doctor Sam

* Since publication of blog the supreme court has upheld the entirety of the Affordable Care Act as being constitutionally sound.

Published on Springboard for the Arts blog September 14, 2009

Get To Know Dr. Sam

Dr. Samuel Willis, board-certified family medicine physician and visual artist, opened a new medical practice 2 weeks ago in the NE Minneapolis Arts District. With the national healthcare debate descending into an angry mess, it gives us great hope that there are people like Dr. Sam that are willing to step up and try to figure out workable, grassroots solutions for their community.

Many of you provided him with crucial feedback needed to design his medical practice, but few have had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Sam like we have. Now, it’s our pleasure to better acquaint you with Dr. Sam, his new practice and his connection to the arts:

NH: Tell us about yourself. What is your background in art and medicine?

Doctor Sam: As a physician I trained at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania after which I completed my residency in Family Medicine at Crozer Keystone Family Medical Residency in Delaware County, the westernmost county in the city of Philadelphia. Throughout my medical education and work as a physician I have kept myself involved in the arts – as a medical student I was a violinist with the Central Pennsylvania Symphony for three of the four years that I was there. As a resident, I attended classes during my second and third year at the Fleisher Institute, a wonderful resource for arts education in Philadelphia. Here in Minneapolis I continue to take continuing education classes at MCAD and other arts education centers in the area. My most recent work has been oil painting and drawing based largely upon figure studies.

NH: How did you first connect to Springboard for the Arts?

Doctor Sam: When I moved to Minneapolis in 2007 I set out to continue to combine art and medicine in a meaningful way. This led to applying for and receiving a grant from a community foundation to support the installation of an art gallery at the Park Nicollet Clinic on Blaisdell Avenue in Minneapolis. I approached Springboard for guidance on how to shape this endeavor and have found a wonderful resource for the arts in this organization. Since that connection, I have been able to collaborate with Springboard in a number of ways including the State of the Arts meeting at Intermedia Arts. I look forward to further opportunities to work with these great organizations.

NH: What inspired you to create this medical practice?

Doctor Sam: I learned in my meetings with you and Laura that there is a need for healthcare for a group of people who cannot afford quality health insurance, and who do not qualify for government aid. I also wanted to change the way I was practicing medicine so that I could feel more closely connected to the patients that were coming to see me.

NH: What was the process of creating this medical practice? Whose counsel did you seek?

Doctor Sam: I have been very fortunate to have met a number of very supportive individuals who have helped me develop this practice model. Some of you may recall taking a survey regarding assessing the healthcare needs of artists. The results of this survey along with numerous conversations with artists related to Springboard have been tremendously helpful in designing this practice. The list of those that have given input is too large to complete in this setting, but it includes doctors practicing a similar model in Seattle, a variety of arts organizations, business organizations, and a competent team of accountants and legal consultants. I also continue to seek the input of my patients and potential future patients in designing and modifying this practice.

NH: How does your medical practice differ from others? What is a retainer model?

Doctor Sam: This membership model has been described in a variety of ways, including a retainer model. This model addresses one important, fundamental, and simple concept in the practice of medicine: I believe that there is value to having a doctor just a phone call or e-mail away, one who has the time to communicate with you even if you are not sitting in the office, and one who is able to help coordinate your care with other care providers. The membership fee covers the overhead of running an office; while the visit fee covers the costs related to the doctor’s examination. Both are competitively priced as low as is feasible. The vision for this office is that no matter how successful we become, we will always maintain our core goal to provide individualized care.

NH: What makes your practice “Artist Friendly”?

Doctor Sam: This is a very good question. It is ultimately up to my patients to decide if it is really artist friendly; however, I believe the answer will be that it is. I have built this practice very much around the needs, interests, and skills of the local arts community, and have responded to the lack of affordable care for those without health insurance by addressing costs associated with x-rays, lab tests, and doctor visits. I also believe that as a doctor and an artist my practice style and open-minded nature are particularly well suited to care for the broad life experiences that make up our arts community. Wherever possible I would like to have the voice of the community represented in this space and our programming. We are lucky to have a vibrant arts community in Minneapolis and I hope to support and grow this community to something even better than what it already is.

NH: What vision do you have for your practice? Tell us about your space in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.

Doctor Sam: I see this as an incubator space for the arts and medicine. It is designed to function at the same time as an art gallery and health center. We are currently planning for between four and six shows a year in the gallery and have already held a community yoga event in our office. I continue to design programming around the needs, interests, and skills of our community and look forward to us all learning how art and medicine inform one another when placed in such close vicinity.

NH: If people have questions, how can they contact you?

Doctor Sam: I would welcome questions, comments, insights, and inquiries by e-mail []  Thank you, Nikki, for taking the time to ask these great questions.

Thank you, Dr. Sam!