Dr. Tan now oversees the Boston Health Care Homeless Program’s dermatology clinic, caring for the skin
of the homeless population. Her work has led to the American Academy of Dermatology naming her a
“Patient Care Hero” for making skin care and hygiene items accessible to those experiencing homelessness
during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merging Interests to Create a Career
In her role as student director of the Homeless and Indigent Population Health Outreach Project
(HIPHOP) Community Health Initiative during medical school, Dr. Tan worked closely with physicians and
community leaders and learned about health disparities.
Dr. Tan also was an active member of
the of the HIPHOP Promise Clinic, a student-led clinic that provides health care and social services to
the underserved and uninsured population at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick, N.J.
Starting the program gave her the tools to set up a similar program later on as a resident in
She shares, “If not for my experience at RWJ, I wouldn’t have been exposed to or
understood the state of poverty in America and what I could do as a doctor to help. I’m so proud to be
an alumna of a school that has prioritized health care disparities and community health as important
components of the curriculum.”
During a fourth-year rotation in dermatology, she became
immensely passionate about this area of medicine. “I enjoyed the visual aspect of dermatology as well as
the overlap between other specialties. The complex nature attracted me to the field,” she reflects.
the time, career trajectories in what she found interesting medically—dermatology—didn’t line up with
her passion for community work. However, over time and with the right mentorship, she was able to create
a path that did not exist and merge her passions. Dr. Tan shares, “During residency, I sought out
mentors in both homeless medicine and dermatology to figure out a way to marry those two interests.”
Tan completed her residency training at the Harvard Combined Dermatology Residency Program, where she
served as chief resident before completing a fellowship in pediatric dermatology at Boston Children’s
Now, she shares time between Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP)
and the Department of Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she sees patients at the
Charlestown Community Health Center. In addition to her clinical role, Dr. Tan teaches residents and
students at Harvard Medical School, whom she finds socially conscious, inspiring, and interested in
solving health care inequities.
Of her teaching experience, she says, “I enjoy showing
students that it is okay to choose an unconventional career path and that it’s possible to unify their
passions in an innovative way. I am fortunate to have a career that involves patient care, teaching, and
the development of dermatology programs within homeless medicine.”
Boston Health Care Homeless Program
In the homeless population, studies have described increased prevalence of skin infections, such as
bacterial, fungal, and ectoparasitic infections. Inflammatory conditions, traumatic injuries, and other
skin issues resulting from long periods of standing on their feet or being exposed to the sun also
occur. For persons experiencing homelessness, Dr. Tan has observed avoidable hospitalization because of
untreated skin diseases that become infected and advanced—up to 20 percent of Emergency Department and
community clinic visits from persons experiencing homelessness are for skin-related issues.
These observations and statistics led Dr. Tan to seek out ways to help. During her residency
at Boson General Hospital, Dr. Tan met a dermatology professor who began volunteering with the BHCHP in
1988. She started shadowing Ernesto Gonzalez, MD, and since then, they have worked together to build a
dermatology collaboration within BHCHP.
At first, the collaboration between BHCHP and the
Harvard Dermatology Combined Residency Program was an informal consultation service. Dr. Tan and Dr.
Gonzalez transformed this program into a formal consultation service and integrated it into the
dermatology training program for residents. Over time, the high prevalence of skin disease in the
population dictated the need for a weekly clinic, as well as a bi-monthly service for pediatric patients
and families. Both Dr. Tan and Molly Cavanaugh-Hussey, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, are now on
staff at BHCHP, caring for several hundred patients each year.
The clinic is always staffed
by a board-certified dermatologist, which Dr. Tan says is very unique. She explains, “Many clinics that
serve homeless patients or underserved communities are volunteer clinics or student-run clinics, with
rotating care givers. Our dermatology clinic is always supervised by one or two dermatologists, which
provides great continuity of care for patients.” Dr. Tan emphasizes that this stability builds trust
with a population who may be weary of the health care system.
Says Dr. Gonzalez about the
clinic’s transformation, “Jennifer has become the institutional face of the service by transforming the
service to a holistic endeavor with the development of specialty clinical service. Jennifer’s
personal attributes of empathy and passion for her craft underscores this unique service, which has been
recognized nationally. It is a journey of love and commitment for the socially disenfranchised that
Jennifer displays genuinely and should serve as stimulus for others to follow.”