If a cancer diagnosis is a patient’s worst nightmare, not being able to afford life-saving treatment runs it a close second. So when one oncologist recently forgave all his patients’ outstanding debts, you might say he took bedside manner to a whole new level.
Dr. Omar Atiq founded the Arkansas Cancer Clinic in 1991. Over the years, countless patients received everything from diagnostics to radiation and chemotherapy at the Pine Bluff facility.
In February of 2020, the clinic closed due to staffing shortages. At the time, there was close to $650,000 outstanding patient debt on the books.
Dr. Atik attributed the large sum to the fact that no patient was ever denied treatment, regardless of whether or not they could pay. “Not for lack of health insurance or funds nor for any other reason,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I’ve always considered it a high honor and privilege to be someone’s physician—more important than anything else.”
Originally from Pakistan, after completing his fellowship at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Atiq accepted a job offer in Arkansas. He says that fateful relocation proved to be a “life-changing” decision.
In 2013, Dr. Atik was named president of the Arkansas Medical Society. Five years later, he became chairman-elect of the board of governors of the American College of Physicians. He credits much of his success to being in the right place at the right time. “I believe the opportunities that have come my way are, in part, because of where I am,” he explained.
After the clinic closed last year, Dr. Atik attempted to settle the debts. He soon realized that many of the folks he’d treated didn’t have the means to pay—especially with so much added financial hardship brought on by the coronavirus pandemic—so with the blessing of his wife, Mehreen, he simply elected to stop asking.
“…My wife and I, as a family, we thought about it and looked at forgiving all the debt… We saw that we could do it and then just went ahead and did it,” Dr. Atik told Good Morning America.
Christmas week, Dr. Atik sent out holiday cards to nearly 200 of his former patients that read:
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“The Arkansas Cancer Clinic was proud to have you as a patient. Although various health insurances pay most of the bills for the majority of patients, even the deductibles and co-pays can be burdensome. The clinic has decided to forego all balances owed to the clinic by its patients.”
Even though he’s no longer treating his patients, Dr. Atik found one final way to practice some kindness and compassion on their behalf. “I just hope that it gave them a little sigh of relief and made it easier for them so they could face other challenges they may be facing in their lives.”
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Sounds like the perfect prescription for a happy new year to us.
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