Doctor champions public health

Dr. Erik Unruh has joined the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas' Iola office as a family physician. He believes a community approach is the best way to solve the numerous social factors that impact health.

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November 23, 2022 - 12:18 PM

Dr. Erik Unruh Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Dr. Erik Unruh knew he wanted a career that would allow him to make an impact. He kept coming back to medicine. 

“It’s not a secret that medicine can be challenging to navigate, both as a patient and — as we’ve seen with the recent pandemic — also very taxing on providers,” Unruh said. “I wanted to make sure I made the right investment with my time and that it was going to be a career that gave me life and filled my cup.”

That journey recently led him to the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas in Iola, where he is a family practice physician. 

“Within the spectrum of medicine, family medicine is really the best ‘specialty’ to really see the full picture — to understand the history of where the patient came from within their community, to address the problems that they’re having now and then, to kind of work with a long term relationship,” he said.

“Particularly in Southeast Kansas, there are a number of organizations who really champion not only individual health but also public health.”

UNRUH grew up in a farming family outside of Cimarron, a town of about 2,000 between Dodge City and Garden City in western Kansas. 

He wasn’t sure if he was going to like medicine, so he decided to study nursing and attended Mid-America Nazarene University, where he obtained a bachelor of science degree in nursing. 

He worked as an emergency room nurse, which opened his eyes to many of the problems inherent in the healthcare system.

“We were great at fixing broken people, but a lot of what we saw was a breakdown of primary care. And I wanted to be part of the solution.”

That led him to pursue a master’s degree in public health from the University of Kansas. He studied community systems to learn what factors influence health.

“Why do we have the outcomes we have? Why does it matter where you live? And that equates to how long you’re going to live.”

Still, Unruh wanted to do more than postulate. So he obtained a medical degree from the University of Kansas Medical Center to become a physician.

Along the way, Unruh gave back to his community through volunteer service. Faith has always been important to him, and he credits numerous teachers, mentors and family members for guiding his evolution.

“Volunteering really began with faith and learning, discovering and getting into the message of Jesus and seeing his approach to love people no matter where they are, who they are, where they come from,” he said. 

He traveled to Guatemala with Heart to Heart International, working as a community health disaster response nurse. He later returned to the country as a medical student.

During that first trip, he met his future wife, Maria, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich. She was in Guatemala as part of Engineers Without Borders, and now works remotely as a lighting engineer for a Lenexa company. They have a son, Russell, age 3 ½.

FINDING THE right community mattered when Unruh approached the end of his residency in Albuquerque, N.M., over the summer.

He and Maria wanted to live in Kansas. When he learned of the opening at CHC/SEK they knew it would be a good fit. He is impressed by the work being done at the clinic under family physicians Drs. Brian Wolfe and Chuck Wanker, and others at the facility. 

“To be able to join a practice like this right out of residency is a huge gift, and one I hope to live up to,” he said. “But also, I want to be seen as a resource for families with young kids, for adolescents and for adults of all ages to seek health care.” 

He recognizes the importance of numerous outside factors that influence health, and was pleased to see how the community works together. 

“It’s referred to as social determinants of health. The things we do in the clinic are really only 20% of that,” he said. “It’s things that happen to us as children. The type of education we receive. The type of household we were raised in. Our access to food on a consistent basis, and the quality of that food. Transportation. There’s just so many factors that contribute to health.”

He’d heard about Thrive Allen County and the work it does to improve health outcomes in the region, and already has worked with the organization to secure transportation for a patient who needed a ride to see a specialist in Fort Scott.

He’s also been impressed by the work being done by the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center. He watched as the new Iola Elementary School opened not long after moving to Iola; son Russell attends a private preschool that is affiliated with the school district. 

“We could tell before we moved here that people are engaged. They take pride in their community, and there’s momentum,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in those things like the school and the projects that Thrive works on are planting seeds that are going to be harvested in 10, 15, 20 years from now. It’s exciting.”

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