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Wednesday Jun 22, 2016

AAFP Award for Excellence in GME: And the Winners Are …

Native Americans account for just 0.3 percent of U.S. physicians, but Hailey Wilson, M.D., overcame those long odds to achieve her goal and now works at a federally qualified health center that serves a largely Native American population.

David Tran, M.D., the son of refugees, also beat the odds to become a physician, overcoming homelessness and the loss of his father during college.

Jerry Abraham, M.D., M.P.H., has served in leadership roles for his county medical society and state medical association board, and this month was a member of the AAFP delegation to the AMA House of Delegates in Chicago.

I could go on about the winners of the AAFP's Award for Excellence in Graduate Medical Education, but the curricula vitae of the 12 honorees -- along with their personal statements and letters of recommendation -- take up some 166 pages of degrees, honors, volunteering, leadership roles, publications and other accomplishments.

The Academy's commissions are tasked with making selections for several awards the AAFP gives in recognition of exceptional service and commitment to family medicine, and it has been my honor this year to serve as the board liaison to the AAFP Commission on Membership and Member Services. At our recent summer meeting, commission members finalized the selections for the aforementioned award, which is given each year to a dozen second-year family medicine residents. The honor, supported by a grant from Novo Nordisk, recognizes outstanding residents for their leadership, civic involvement, exemplary patient care, and aptitude for and interest in family medicine.

Every member of the Commission on Membership and Member Services reviewed each of the more than 100 applications we received. It was an extraordinary time commitment to be sure, but every reviewer echoed a sense of incredible appreciation of the quality and diversity within our specialty. It was difficult to select 12 winners from the numerous exceptional candidates who applied with the support of their residency program directors.

As I thought about writing this piece, I reflected on how much our Academy and its members have influenced the medical school admission process, the selection process for family medicine residents, and the support for new physicians and emerging medical leaders.

Those medical schools with a strong commitment to family medicine and primary care include family physicians on their admission committees. They look for candidates who have connections to rural communities, an interest in a broad spectrum of practice, premedical experience working with diverse populations and underserved communities, and who have been exposed to family medicine. They seek candidates who demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and experience, as well as a desire for lifelong learning that will prepare them for the incredible variety of interactions that characterizes the practice of family medicine.

The medical students who are part of a family medicine interest group and student members of our Academy have demonstrated an early commitment, and extraordinary pre-doctoral faculty across our country are instrumental in encouraging and facilitating the journey of those students toward a family medicine residency program.

Family medicine residency programs apply similar selection criteria, sifting through the myriad of applicants for each of their residency slots, and extending invitations to those whom they feel will fit well into an established health care team that cares for a broadly diverse population. Many residency programs have a special commitment to a specific underserved population and eagerly seek applicants who have special experience and interests that will better prepare them for a future practice serving those communities.

This year's award applications included extraordinary examples of commitment to underserved populations and research, as well as compassion, communication and knowledge-based decision-making. I applaud the commission members who made the difficult selection process work.

The winners will be recognized at a special breakfast on Sept. 22 during the Family Medicine Experience in Orlando, Fla. At last year's award ceremony, I sat with the parents and residency program directors of two incredibly humble individuals who spoke not of themselves or their accomplishments, but instead described how much the mentorship they experienced from practicing family physicians meant to them.

When I read about the 12 individuals who will receive this year's Award for Excellence in Graduate Medical Education, I appreciated how successfully family physicians have influenced the premedical education of our high school and college students, the pre-doctoral education of our medical students and the training of our family medicine residents. Behind each and every individual who receives this award are the thousands and thousands of family physicians across our country who make a difference every day in caring for our patients, their families and their communities. You make it possible for us to recognize a few exceptional family medicine residents. We all should take pride in the impact each of us has in growing the future of family medicine.

Here are the winners:

  • Jerry Abraham, M.D., M.P.H., University of Southern California Family Medicine Residency Program at California Hospital;
  • Margot Brown, M.D., Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency;
  • Stewart Decker, M.D., Cascades East Family Medicine Residency;
  • Daniel Gordon, M.D., Memorial University Medical Center Family Medicine Residency;
  • Christina Kinnevey, M.D., Sutter Health Family Medicine Residency;
  • Adam Kowalski, M.D., Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center Family Medicine  Residency Program;
  • Catherine Moore, D.O., Mercy Family Medicine Residency;
  • Charles, Salmen, M.D., University of Minnesota/North Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program;
  • David Tran, M.D., Long Beach Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program;
  • Juan Carlos Venis, M.D., M.P.H., Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital Family Medicine Residency;
  • Hailey Wilson, M.D., Swedish Cherry Hill Family Medicine Residency; and
  • Jason Woloski, M.D., Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Family Medicine Residency.

Carl Olden, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Monday Jun 13, 2016

Time for Congress to End 20-year Ban on Gun Research

If I told you the U.S. government stopped funding research into one of its most pressing public health concerns, you might conclude that the problem had been solved. But that would be incorrect. When a homegrown terrorist shot more than 100 people this weekend in an Orlando nightclub, it was the 176th time that the United States had experienced a mass shooting (four or more people injured) in a year that is not even half over.

Every year, more than 33,000 Americans die because of gun violence and more than twice as many are injured. Yet for two decades, Congress has restricted the CDC from conducting research related to gun violence.

The AAFP and more than 100 other stakeholder organizations sent a letter to Congressional leaders in April, urging them to end the ban on gun violence research. Today we are again calling on Congress to address this important issue.

Research into gun violence could provide us with valuable information about protecting children from accidental shootings, suicide prevention, the impact of various state gun policies and more.

As these events continue to happen -- from Newtown, Conn., to Fort Hood, Texas, and San Bernadino, Calif. -- there will be opportunities for physicians to step forward and ask what we can do differently. Ending the ban on research would be a wise first step.

I'm at the AMA meeting this week in Chicago, and the AAFP and other physician organizations are pledging to do what we can to heal our nation. I am proud of my colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Psychiatric Association who joined with me to share the message of hope and healing below. Our nation must have an honest and frank discussion on reducing both the tendency and capacity for violence in our society. Hopefully, now is that time.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.


Wednesday Jun 08, 2016

Catching a Dream: Participating in Leadership Keeps 'Goblins' at Bay

When we feel consumed by the constant flux of the health care system and its seemingly endless clicks and prior authorizations, we need something to nourish our nature as healers.

It helps to remember that we hold the key to the health of our patients, a point that was driven home at this year's AAFP National Conference of Constituency Leaders.

I often hear that this conference is the heartbeat of the Academy, the place where key issues are tackled with an emphasis on change. Each chapter is invited to send representatives from constituencies historically underrepresented in AAFP leadership: women; minorities; new physicians; international medical graduates (IMGs); and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) physicians and those who support GLBT issues.

This conference, which coincides with the Academy's Annual Chapter Leader Forum (ACLF), serves as a platform for innovation and policy transformation within our organization. Energy pulses throughout three jam-packed days, and new leaders emerge. Friendships are made. Connections are strengthened. Morales are boosted.  

In this environment, those lurking goblins that once held us back in our practices are stifled by the web of our dreams as leaders in our specialty and the health care system.

Looking at the more than 200 participants in this year's conference, I was struck by the image of the dream catcher. In Native American tradition, this circular web of natural materials hangs above a sleeping area where the morning light can hit it. The dream catcher attracts dreams to its web. Bad dreams do not know the way through the web and get caught -- then, the first light of day causes them to melt away and perish. Good dreams go through the center of the web and slide down to the sleeper below.

In today's medicine, we are the dream catchers. We, as family physicians, are a mixture of different media held together by the bond of providing excellent care to keep our health system focused on what matters. Just as the web of the dream catcher captures dreams and channels the ones with purpose to its beholder, we consider policy and reformations to enact change within our Academy and beyond. Through more than 60 resolutions at NCCL, delegates voted their consciences on topics such as payment, transgender care, burnout, student debt, and parental leave.  

The role of a dream catcher is not simply to ward off malignant thoughts or dreams. More importantly, dream catchers propel those they watch over to an improved reality. This is the exciting aspect of NCCL. It is a place where our Academy has invested resources that enable underrepresented constituencies to suggest policies that directly affect us and the people we serve. It is a way to bring new leadership into the organization and help current leaders refine their skills.

The vision of diversity in leadership is a recurrent theme at the conference. As important as it is to create a space for budding leaders to emerge, it is equally important that we in leadership, on both the state and national levels, be deliberate in our attempts to recruit leaders from diverse backgrounds. There is nothing more beautiful than to see the creative exchange of ideas from people of diverse cultures, backgrounds, practice types and roles. This is how dreams evolve into reality.

Another important theme that resounds in the conference is the interconnectivity of social determinants of health and health outcomes. We understand that our patients live within a context that is uniquely their own. Without basic provisions such as transportation, adequate access to food, a stable home environment and safe schools, the families for whom we care cannot focus on their health. We know this innately, but we as an organization have been challenged, in part through venues like NCCL, to put meat to this understanding. It was through the persistence of resolutions adopted at NCCL that stances on childhood obesity, transgender care and protection of physician autonomy germinated. These resolutions guide our Academy to dig deeper into the issues and form evidence-based opinions that can further empower our members. More importantly, we are reminded that we are accountable for treating our patients within their unique contexts.

So vision and accountability stem from an electric gathering of people from all over the country. I would also contend that hope and joy abide in this space! What better way to combat burnout than to come and work for improvement alongside equally passionate individuals?

I am thankful that our Academy invests in its future through conferences such as NCCL. The AAFP pays airfare or mileage for each chapter to send a new physician delegate in addition to three other individuals attending NCCL or ACLF. I hope to see all chapters represented next year, when the conference is held April 27-29 in Kansas City, Mo. I promise you it will be time well spent among the dream catchers.

There are two more AAFP events this year where members can help shape Academy policy. The National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students is July 28-30 in Kansas City, Mo. The Congress of Delegates is Sept. 19-21 in Orlando, Fla.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Thursday May 26, 2016

We're Getting the Media to Spread the Word About Family Medicine

We've posted in this blog before about the importance of working with the media to share public health messages and to educate the public and policymakers about complex health issues. We have shared stories about what Academy leaders are doing nationally while also encouraging members to work with the media at the local level.

Last year, the AAFP decided to take an in-depth look at our media outreach and get a professional assessment of how we're doing. The results, which were presented to the Academy's Board of Directors this month, are encouraging.

The AAFP contracted with GYMR, a Washington, D.C.,-based communications firm that specializes in health care and social issues, to perform a yearlong analysis of media coverage of the AAFP and a number of its peer organizations: the AMA, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Osteopathic Association (AOA).

The intent of the analysis was to determine how well the AAFP was performing in 26 strategic, targeted media outlets, including large daily newspapers (such as the Los Angeles Times), national publications (such as USA Today), wire services (such as the Associated Press), trade media (such as Medical Economics) and policy outlets (such as Politico). We also wanted to know how well our message was being relayed and how our coverage compared to that of our peers.

The Academy's public relations staff receives media requests and also pitches story ideas to contacts. The result is that the AAFP is mentioned in hundreds of media outlets each month. Looking at only the 26 targeted outlets, in fact, the AAFP is a constant presence, with an average of 38 mentions a month -- 23.5 in health care trade publications, 11 in national media outlets and 3.4 in policy-related outlets.

GYMR also analyzed numbers by mission area. Nearly a third of the articles that mentioned the AAFP dealt with practice advancement. That's good news, because it's critical for policymakers to know how issues such as payment, regulations and administrative burdens affect physicians and their patients.

Twenty-eight percent of the articles that mentioned the Academy had to do with health of the public issues, such as electronic cigarettes and breastfeeding. AAP also did well in this area because of the interest in children's health care issues. We can work to educate the media about the fact that family physicians care for the entire spectrum of age groups, and family physicians care for millions of children, particularly in rural and underserved areas.

To break it down a different way, a quarter of the education and a third of advocacy articles in the analysis mentioned the AAFP. There are many more stories here we can tell, including the fact that our nation's graduate medical education system is not producing an adequate number of primary care physicians.

Interestingly, the AAFP accounted for 25 percent of all quotes in the hundreds of stories that were considered, more than any other primary care group. Academy representatives were quoted in 63 percent of the stories that mentioned the AAFP, nearly double the rate of the AAP and far more than the AMA and AOA.

The analysis also looked at who should be quoted. Some health care organizations use a staff member as a spokesperson. On the other hand, the president is the official spokesperson of the AAFP. One reason the Academy is frequently quoted is because each year, the organization has a new person who can share fresh stories and practice perspectives with reporters. Rather than a policy wonk sitting behind a desk, we have practicing family physicians talking about how important issues affect us, our patients and our colleagues. On an almost daily basis, I'm telling reporters stories that start with, "I have a patient who …"

Family physicians have a unique ability to tell stories and connect issues to patients. We can humanize important health messages and make them easier for the public to understand. Ultimately, we are getting the right messages to the right people on behalf of family medicine.

You can join us by sharing stories in your own community, whether it be at the Rotary Club, a Boy Scout meeting or with your local newspaper. We can help the public understand the importance of issues such as immunizations by speaking out. In the process, we expand public awareness of family medicine, who we are, what we do and what we offer the health care system.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

Friday May 20, 2016

Let's All Commit to Reverse the Opioid Epidemic

Last week, AMA President Steven Stack, M.D., issued a letter entitled "Confronting a Crisis: An Open Letter to America's Physicians on the Opioid Epidemic." We have been working closely with the AMA and other physician organizations on this issue through the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse.

As family physicians, we see the havoc opioid abuse is causing families and communities across the United States. That's why we're working hard to provide adequate pain management for our patients who need it, while at the same time, raising awareness that addiction to opioids is a national health crisis.

© 2016 Sheri Porter/AAFP

Here I am discussing the nation's opioid crisis with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., M.B.A. We met April 18 in Washington to discuss possible collaborations between the Academy and the surgeon general's office.

A recent AAFP study showed that opioids are not our first choice when we're treating patients with chronic pain -- four other treatment methods (physical and occupational therapy, oral non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and antidepressants) are prescribed or recommended for our patients dealing with non-malignant chronic pain before opioids. While this is not a surprise to you, it is important to share this information with patients, payers, legislators and policy makers.

Please know that your AAFP is working closely with other organizations to combat the scourge of opioid abuse -- the White House, HHS, the surgeon general of the United States, and the CDC to name a few. And we have multiple resources readily available to you -- with more to come in early June.

We all need to do our part to end this epidemic. Showing our resolve, by voluntarily increasing our individual CME hours dedicated to opioids and pain management, is a step that we can each take. The AAFP has collated the CME on this topic to make it easier for you to locate, complete and report your hours. Please log in and refresh your knowledge on these critical issues.

Family physicians are dedicated to being a part of the solution to help slow this national crisis. Please join me. Together, we can address this devastating epidemic -- balancing pain relief for our patients in need with our sincere desire to always do no harm.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is  president of the AAFP.

Wednesday May 18, 2016

Can Mindfulness Meditation Deliver Us From Burnout?

What do you do for fun? This is an important question I have started to ask patients so I can get to know them better and assess whether they find joy in their lives. I appreciate that the absence of joy can be a significant contributor to absence of personal health and sense of wellness.

I often wonder if we should be asking our physician colleagues the same question. A recent survey of nearly 36,000 physicians found that 63 percent of family physicians suffer from at least one symptom of burnout, an increase of 12 percent in just three years.

Not surprisingly, the same survey, which was published in December in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found that physician satisfaction with work-life balance was falling nearly as fast as burnout was rising. The percentage of family physicians who were satisfied with their work-life balance in this survey was roughly 35 percent, which was down from 50 percent in the previous study done three years earlier.

Although the AAFP, its constituent chapters and other physician organizations are working hard to address the many drivers of burnout that exist in our external environment -- including electronic health records, reimbursement and administrative burden -- it also is important that we, as physicians, ask ourselves what else we can do to survive and thrive amidst the current chaos.

A growing body of evidence points to mindfulness meditation and practicing the principles of mindfulness-based stress reduction as a key answer to this important question.

Back in 2013, there already was ample evidence that mindfulness meditation could help people reduce stress when researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used MRI scans to show that the process, after just eight weeks, appeared to shrink the amygdala and thicken the prefrontal cortex. In other words, participants' connection to their fight-or-flight response got weaker as their attention and concentration improved. Researchers reported that the scale of these changes correlated with the amount of time spent on meditation.

Earlier this year, a research team that included the authors of that 2013 study found that mindfulness meditation stimulated areas of the brain that may help control emotional reaction and attention and decreased blood levels of interleukin-6, which is associated with inflammatory disease risk, meaning the process may protect participants' from emotional distress and decrease inflammation.

Yet another study published last fall in the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions found that participants' heart rate, blood pressure and Maslach Burnout Inventory scores improved after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, and results continued during a 10-month followup period with low attrition and high compliance rates.

Not surprisingly, I'm hearing more and more about mindfulness wherever I go. Daniel Friedland, M.D. recently gave a presentation on how mindfulness can play a role in leadership during the AAFP's Annual Leadership Conference. And Renee Crichlow, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, recently presented the evidence for using mindfulness meditation to prevent burnout at the Minnesota AFP's annual meeting.

Skeptics might be reluctant to invest time on something they aren't sure about, and maybe you aren't comfortable with the idea of sitting in the lotus position and getting in touch with yourself. The good news is there are plenty of free resources to help you get started and you can practice mindfulness meditation in whatever position is comfortable for you in just few minutes a day.

As this short video on the basics of meditation from Happifyhealth.com says, meditation is simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain. Another short YouTube video from Happify explains why mindfulness is a powerful tool for your well-being.

If meditation isn't for you, there are other options to reduce stress and build resiliency. A Minnesota community that lost two physicians in a short time period -- including one to suicide -- started a Bounce Back campaign that aims to improve physician and public health by making the community a happier place. The initiative encourages people of all ages to perform random acts of kindness.

Family Practice Management recently published a three-part series by family physician and burnout expert Dike Drummond, M.D., that covers recognizing symptoms and causes of stress, reducing stress and work-life balance. All three articles are eligible for AAFP Prescribed CME credit for one year from the date of publication.

I appreciate that none of these tools is going to improve reimbursement, make payers more reasonable about prior authorizations or improve the interoperability of our electronic health records systems. However, these tools can help us be the best we can be in our "inner space" while we struggle to eliminate the challenges and burdens that occupy the "outer space" of our practice of medicine. After all, if we can't take care of ourselves, we won't have anything left to care for others.

Lynne Lillie, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Tuesday May 03, 2016

FPs Can Be Trusted Guides When the Dying Don't Specify Wishes

Each day when I walked into his hospital room, I greeted him with, "Hello there, Mr. Gold! How are you?" His cerebral amyloid angiopathy, resulting strokes and severe dementia had left him chronically debilitated and nonverbal, but his gazing eyes were enough for me to acknowledge our shared humanity.

For nearly a month, I took care of him on our inpatient service, treating him through seizures, aspiration pneumonias, intubations and extubations. I learned at his funeral service that he had gone by the nickname "Cuz," and when asked by the pastor to give a few words, I admitted that I had not had the benefit of knowing my patient in his prime. However, I had the distinct honor of helping him through his final days. And I was inspired by the love his family showered on him.

Every day, I sat down with Mrs. Gold (not the family's real name) and discussed the care plan, hopeful that her husband could return home to her capable care. But as his situation progressively worsened, it became clear that he might not ever make it home from the hospital.

She struggled with granting an "allow natural death" status that would forfend the high-caliber interventions that were becoming more and more futile. The only direction she had received from her husband on this difficult topic before his illness was that if his heart stopped, he wanted to be brought back.

Never mentioned in their conversations was a scenario in which he had progressive dementia and organ failure. Never discussed was the option of withdrawing care in the context of loss of dignity and quality of life.

So, in this situation neither of them had foreseen, she was doing her best to extrapolate what his end-of-life preferences would be from the minimal information he had imparted.

Reluctantly, she agreed to press on with full code interventions. By the second intubation, the palliative care team and I discussed with her the option of in-hospital hospice, where he could be extubated and spend his final days in the company of family without invasive tubes, lines, bells and whistles. He passed there peacefully, but his family's ordeal may have been less traumatic if he had made his wishes clear.

The Health is Primary campaign released patient materials earlier this year that discuss palliative care and advance directives, and American Family Physician has a collection of journal articles related to end-of-life care that include content for patients as well as physicians. These tools can help your practice and your patients with end-of-life discussions.

Often, family members are put in situations that require them to make decisions on behalf of their loved ones. Sometimes they disagree on how these decisions should be made or carried out. Difficult conversations can often be managed skillfully by family doctors who have developed trust and intimate knowledge of those they care for. Being able to give people a wide array of options is an honor. Putting the needs of those we serve above our own is an even higher honor.

Helping Mrs. Gold through this process was deeply inspiring for me. In the closing paragraphs of Mr. Gold's funeral service program, she quoted an anonymous poem: "So I gave to you life's greatest gift, the gift of letting go."

It's worth noting that a growing number of dying patients will soon have the ability to control their fate, allowing them to experience a far different process than my patient in Maryland. A new law in California that goes into effect June 9 will allow qualified patients the ability to self-administer a prescribed medication to aid in the dying process. For many, this would be preferred to the common hospital scenario of prolonged suffering, often alone.

The California AFP has responded with a set of resources that includes a series of four podcasts (each less than 10 minutes) on end-of-life conversations, an American Board of Family Medicine Part IV (Performance in Practice) Maintenance of Certification Module, a guide to weaving palliative care into your practice and additional information on the new California law (which is similar to laws already in place in Washington and Oregon).

Richard Bruno, M.D., M.P.H., is the resident member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Wednesday Apr 27, 2016

Keeping a Promise to Share What I Know

When we take the Hippocratic Oath we pledge, among other things, to share our knowledge and teach the next generation of physicians. Like a lot of promises, however, this one isn't always fulfilled.

I was a volunteer community preceptor for a decade in my small town, which is near the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Three afternoons each semester, or six times a year, one first-year medical student and one second-year student would come spend time in my clinic.

Here I am answering a question from Tyler Grunow, a first-year medical student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, between patients. I have been a volunteer community preceptor for more than a decade.

My role was to help students develop history taking skills (illness, chief complaint, past history, family history, current meds, etc.), practice physical skills (such as listening to the heart and testing reflexes) and understanding the doctor-patient relationship and why it's valuable.

It sounds simple enough, and yet our specialty finds itself in a situation where far too few family medicine practices are willing or able help. I get it. A few years ago I was chair of an AAFP commission while also serving on the local board of health and working full time. Something on my overloaded schedule had to go, so I took a break from precepting.

It was a mistake.

While I was on that break I was asked to talk about precepting during a panel discussion at a family medicine conference. One of the questions, ironically, was how do you find time to help students and meet all your other commitments.

I was reminded of a student named Scott, who came to visit my clinic for the fourth time on a particularly busy day. I told him before we got started that he could shadow me that day but that I wouldn't have time for didactic learning.

I felt guilty because I didn't stick to our usual routine, and at the end of the afternoon I apologized. "I hope you got something out of that," I said.

He looked at me surprised.

"Dr. Schwartzstein," he said, "that was our best session yet. I learned so much from watching you interact with patients. It was wonderful."

Scott had learned by observing. He got a sense of the doctor-patient relationship and how it is at the core of what we do. Family medicine is about relationships, and he saw how I interacted with my patients and the level of comfort they had with me.

As I told that story at the conference, I realized precepting wasn't something I could give up in good faith. And I realized it wasn't something I had to give up to maintain productivity. I can do this.

So the med students are back in my clinic, three afternoons a semester, six times a year. Physicians are pressed for time, and many likely think med students will slow them down, hurt their productivity or force them to work late. The reality is that it shouldn't be that big of a burden. In fact, students can add value to a practice.

I find out what students are studying before they visit. If, for example, it's cardio, I make sure they get to listen to patients' hearts. I start by asking if there something specific they want to get out of a visit, and if there is I try to help them with that particular interest.

I try to answer questions between patients or at the end of the day. I ask, did you learn anything today? And I'm eager to hear their answers. Students have different perspectives about new ways to do things, and their questions keep me on my toes.

In addition to teaching when we have students in our clinics, we are recruiting future family physicians. While they no doubt notice the administrative burdens and imperfect EHRs and ask about that, I am careful in how I address those issues. Despite these challenges, I still love being a family doctor, and I am careful to talk about, and show students, that love as I see patients with them.

A long time ago during med school graduation I pledged that I would share what I learn. Now, and until I retire, I will follow through on that promise.

Alan Schwartzstein, M.D., is the vice speaker of the AAFP Congress of Delegates.

Monday Apr 18, 2016

Seeing the Diseases Vaccines Prevent Illustrates Importance of Immunizations

Editor's Note: In recognition of National Infant Immunization Week, the AAFP is participating in a blog relay to discuss the critical role vaccines play in protecting children, families and communities against vaccine-preventable diseases. You can follow the conversation on social media using #NIIW.

It was a hot, humid day in Cap-Haitien. I was a premed student serving as both an extra pair of hands and as a medical interpreter during my first medical mission trip to Haiti.

The magic of being in the country of my roots enveloped my senses. A deep sense of pride swelled within me as I heard the ocean in the distance, smelled the spices that I had grown up eating and marveled at the intense beauty of the terrain. However, that pride was repeatedly flattened by grief from the immense poverty that surrounded me. Even though it has been more than 10 years since that trip, the images of so many people in need of the type of care I had taken for granted continue to drive me today.

I remember seeing a teenager stiff from tetanus and unable to swallow. His mother held him and pleaded for help.  

I held an infant, feverish with pneumonia, who improved after my group paid for penicillin, IV fluids and oxygen.  

We forget that American children used to routinely die from diseases that now can be prevented by vaccines. However, this is not the reality in many countries.  

Today marks the beginning of National Infant Immunization Week which highlights the importance of protecting infants from vaccine-preventable diseases and celebrates the achievements of immunization programs across the country.  

As a family doctor, one of the most important roles I play in my patients' lives is preventing disease and improving health. Every day I discuss the role of vaccines in health maintenance with my patients as a means to protect them and at-risk populations.  

Thankfully, we are in an era where terrible diseases like polio, Haemophilus influenzae type B and measles are no longer commonplace in our country. However, in California (where I live), there are many parents who still choose not to vaccinate their children despite overwhelming evidence that demonstrates the safety and effectiveness of immunizations. As a result, we have witnessed the devastating effects of disease outbreaks.  

Family physicians and other primary care stakeholders in my state have had to work hard mitigating a measles outbreak and the dangerous rise of pertussis, or whooping cough, in recent years.

The importance of vaccination resonates with me, personally, as a mother of three. When I returned to work after the birth of my youngest child, I had to consider exposing my child to potential antigens brought home from work. I was concerned that the decisions of others could affect the health of my own newborn.

I changed my practice and became more proactive in educating parents about vaccinations. Some parents entrusted their children to my counsel. For others, I decided that I may not be the right physician for them. Although I was torn between caring for patients and doing no harm, I knew I could not withhold vaccinations from a child who lacks the ability to make an informed decision. I also knew that not vaccinating families put others in our community at risk. With that said, I have gladly welcomed families who may have questions about immunizations or decide to use a catch-up schedule.

In California, we have adopted a law that emphasizes an individual's obligation to protect others. Specifically, it eliminates religious and personal belief exemptions for vaccines. This is an important step because the benefits of immunizations are not confined to the individual. Vaccination -- or lack of it -- can affect others unknowingly. Consider the newborn, too young to get vaccinated, or the immunocompromised person undergoing chemotherapy. 

In a world that is so interconnected, we must be diligent to protect those at most risk, our children. Giving children the recommended immunizations by age 2 is the best way to protect them from more than a dozen serious -- but preventable -- diseases.

The CDC is right to trumpet the role immunizations have played in reducing the burden of illness in our society. Primary care physicians can add our voice by posting information in our waiting rooms and exam rooms. The CDC also has resources to help physicians get the word out by working with local media, using social media and more. We all can do our part.

It is easy to forget our past and to ignore the fact that the threat of preventable disease is palpable in other countries. For me, I remember those days on the mission field and the children whose fates were sealed without the option of prevention that too many among the privileged are rejecting.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D.,  is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Thursday Apr 07, 2016

Rural Recruiting, Retention Proves Daunting

I went to college in St. Louis, med school in Cleveland and residency in the Houston suburbs. If you had asked me back then where I would be living when my training was complete, I never would have guessed a rural mountain town on the West Coast. But this city girl has grown to love rural medicine.

The beautiful scenery, family life and the ability to be present in the day-to-day functions of our home were the main reasons my husband and I first decided to leave an urban environment for a much quieter setting, but my desire to work with the underserved translated naturally to this new setting, as well.

Here I am talking with patient Gail Ruby during a recent office visit. Unfortunately, I'm leaving my rural practice in California because of the local hospital's lack of support for primary care.

I quickly realized that the struggles related to poverty and access don't discriminate based on location. Many of the same health challenges I saw in med school and residency infiltrate our small community, and my patients can attest to my value as a family doctor in the clinic, the hospital or in the operating room.

With so much that I have gained from being in rural practice, it pains me to have to leave. My contracted hospital has not been able to provide a work environment that supports me as medical director, and I find myself once again giving preference to work over family. That was the problem that led me to move from a big city environment in the first place.

Before I arrived here, there were only two obstetrical physicians covering more than 15,000 patients for 18 months. During the last five years, our community lost four physicians, including three family doctors. I am the only young primary care physician in town, and most of the practicing physicians are nearing retirement. So, as a new physician working in a great community, I am concerned by the ever-demanding needs of a small practice, little support and lack of new hires into the area.

Although my family loves this close community, I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into the inefficiencies of a practice that does not support physician leadership. More importantly, I realize that the hospital recruitment has been ineffective, and my work-life balance has suffered as a result.

Sure, there are alternative practice models, like direct primary care. However, it is difficult to limit a practice panel when a community is already suffering from attrition of physicians. One could open up his or her own solo practice, but the start-up costs and overhead can be prohibitive. Frankly, when faced with $100,000 of debt -- or more -- coming out of residency, it is intimidating to think of incurring even more debt to start a business.

The truth is that in small towns, the local hospital is the main financial resource for recruitment and retention of physicians. Factor in that most new physicians are looking for some kind of employment model, and the cost of recruiting usually cannot be absorbed by smaller practices. Despite the important role of primary care, especially in small communities, I find myself often defending my value -- to the community and the hospital -- as a family physician practicing obstetrics.

The cost of recruiting a family physician is roughly $100,000. But what is the value lost when you lose a family doctor? Research shows that having a family doctor cuts costs in unnecessary testing, reduced hospital readmissions and better continuity of care. We also know that family doctors generate revenue for affiliated hospitals, to the tune of $1.5 million in annual revenue per FTE.

Although doctors and hospitals functioned in a more segregated way in the past, it is now almost expected that hospitals collaborate with physicians in order to provide better population medicine. This is certainly a paradigm shift in focus and priorities, and at least where I live, is not well-received by the corporation that owns my local hospital.

One thing is certain. Traditional recruitment models have not attracted any doctors to my town in at least the last five years. Something has to change.

Leaving my town has real consequences in how medical care will be delivered, especially in relation to obstetrical care. We know that if rural communities lose their hospitals, it is a sentence for increased maternal-fetal deaths, more high-risk deliveries, more inappropriate home births and a loss of economic stability to the community. It also leaves the door open to poor health outcomes for the chronically ill.

So what is the answer? How do we appeal to young physicians and encourage them to invest in these areas? The answer may be much simpler than you think. If you build it, they will come.

Young physicians are looking for a place in which we can thrive both personally and professionally. As I continually stressed to my hospital, new recruits want to know that the people who work in that setting are supported, that innovation is welcomed and that the management or corporation is forward-thinking. We also want to be compensated appropriately for the level of work and expertise we offer. The new recruit wants to be in a place that supports and upholds the importance of the physician's role in the delivery of patient-centered care.

We aren’t afraid to work hard, but we don’t want to do so in vain. Although this is not unique to a rural setting, the financial component is amplified due to lack of resources compared to larger cities with larger markets.

My colleagues here tell me that these expectations represent quite a change in mentality from even 10 years ago, when physicians did not require as much from corporate entities. I’m not completely sure how this shift occurred, but part of the answer lies in the increased demand for data sourcing and the challenge of electronic health systems that do not communicate with one another. Couple that with reduced reimbursement rates for primary care, and we have a good start to answer that question.

Call it a generational change of mind or maybe a realignment of priorities. However you want to label it, this trend isn’t going away. Gone are the days when a person would work without being afforded respect and validation. As innate servant-leaders, family doctors have a tendency to gloss over those business aspects, but I hope our savvy new physicians will push all stakeholders into the right direction. I hope that we will return to a world where a family doctor is able to choose whatever practice model fits his or her lifestyle best, whether that is running a small business or as an employee.

My family will miss the community we have grown to love, but moving is the price to pay in order to have a continued presence in my home. As we prepare to move to another community with a small-town feel, I can definitely say that being part of a rural town has left us with a great impression of family life. I hope that my departure creates the pressure the local hospital needs to revamp strategies that will attract and keep primary care alive in this area. When my family returns to visit, I pray that the medical scene will beat to a different tune.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Thursday Mar 31, 2016

Women in Leadership Build Support for Other Female Physicians

At a recent family medicine meeting, I took pride in the fact that this year the AAFP president, the speaker of Congress of Delegates and the president of the AAFP Foundation are all women. That's a rarity given that Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is only the third female president in the Academy's 69-year history

I believe we’ll see more female physicians on the forefront of leadership in the future. When I graduated from medical school, women accounted for roughly 10 percent of the U.S. physician work force. Today, the number is closer to one-third.

Women in leadership positions in family medicine include, from left, AAFP President Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A.; myself (speaker of the AAFP Congress of Delegates); and AAFP Foundation President Evelyn Lewis&Clark, M.D., M.A.

In family medicine, the trend is even stronger. More than 40 percent of AAFP members are women, and the numbers are higher among our youngest physicians. Fifty-four percent of family medicine residents are women, and 57 percent of our new physician members are women.

As our percentage of membership increases, so does our representation. Three dozen presidents and presidents-elect of our constituent chapters are women. And nearly 50 women serve on AAFP commissions. Female physicians should feel empowered by the changes we are experiencing.

Despite the advances women have made, obstacles remain. A recent Medscape survey indicates that female physicians still earn far less than our male counterparts. Illinois AFP President Alvia Siddiqi, M.D., recently launched our chapter's Women in Leadership Member Interest Group to address such disparities. The group's first event, held in late February, aimed to help women improve their contract negotiating skills.

Siddiqi said the chapter's intention is to "provide an open forum to discuss issues relevant to female family medicine physicians, including contract negotiations, balancing career and family lives, and career development." The group will encourage female physicians to participate in leadership and offer opportunities for mentoring, and personal and professional development through education and other programming.

On a broader scale, Michigan AFP President Kim Yu, M.D., recently started a social media effort to connect female family physicians across the country. Yu launched Physician Moms in Family Medicine on Facebook in January, and the group had 800 members within a few days. It now has more than 1,100.

Only family physicians can join the group, Yu said, because she wanted members to have a place "to ask their questions within the safety of our own specialty."

"It has been eye opening to hear directly from physicians on topics from ABFM certification questions, celebrating when someone becomes an AAFP fellow or delivers a baby, how to deal with threatening patients, interesting or difficult cases, how to teach circumcision to residents, favorite board review courses, info on FQHCs, best CME courses, procedures, or sharing about our favorite conferences," Yu said.

Yu said her goal for the group is to provide a venue where women can find a community to share their joys and difficulties and support each other.

The group is open to women who are not mothers, but Yu said it will keep its name so women know they also can "discuss issues that affect us as physician moms, not just as physicians."

Yu also hopes the group can encourage its members to become more involved in advocacy for their patients and the specialty.

As Women's History Month comes to a close, I'd love to hear what other chapters and groups are doing to provide mentoring and resources for female family physicians.

Finally, I want to remind you that the National Conference of Constituency Leaders will be May 5-7 in Kansas City, Mo. That event, which provides a platform to five AAFP special constituencies -- women, minorities, new physicians, international medical graduates and physicians interested in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues -- is co-located with the Annual Chapter Leader Forum.

Javette Orgain, M.D., M.P.H., is speaker of the AAFP Congress of Delegates.

Monday Mar 28, 2016

Thoughts on Empathy Under the Northern Lights

The other night I was treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis. The sky glowed with shimmering light in a spectrum of green and red. It is amazing how something as ephemeral and yet complex as solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere can create such beauty.

At the same time, I have been thinking a lot lately about empathy and how it relates to patient care, burnout and electronic health records (EHRs). Like the northern lights, empathy has a scientific basis, but is still nebulous and beautiful.

I use empathy as a diagnostic tool. My mind is geared to understand and mirror the emotions of others. Although I use logic and evidence-based medicine, I cannot deny that a large part of my assessment in the exam room is based on my reaction to how the patient feels. Our brains are uniquely wired for precisely this process and the trillions of neural connections along with experience trigger patterns of diagnosis. The way a patient moves onto the exam table, the small facial expressions, eye contact, skin color and the way the heart beats mean as much to me as do the history and lab work. I use all of this information to answer the fundamental question: Is this patient sick or not?

To feel what someone else is feeling is a gift given to us by an evolutionary legacy of living as social animals, and I use this gift in my work each day. Several years ago I walked into an exam room and within seconds realized that my 4-year-old patient had cancer. Knowing instantaneously what my diagnosis would be, I dedicated the remainder of the visit to fleshing out the history, conducting a physical exam and obtaining lab work that would identify her leukemia. This is not the only time this has happened to me, and I am not alone.

When the aurora is bright, the light comes in shimmering streamers from multiple directions at once across a large part of the sky. It is not sequential or directional, but manifests as parallel lines of color and light that come in waves and swirls.

Advances in neuroscience, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, have shown us similar action in specific parts of the brain correlated with empathy. The neurologic basis of empathy is extremely complex and involves multiple areas of the brain. Memory is connected to our senses. Interpretation of visual cues is balanced with experience. Mirror neurons, the cingulate gyrus, and anterior insula, are all involved and all of this parallel processing occurs beneath the level of cognition. There is a good body of evidence to show that the same parts of the brain activate in response to pain -- whether it is personal or vicarious -- through empathy.

Our patients need this connection as well. As physicians we use empathy as a diagnostic tool, but both we and our patients need it to cope with disease at hand. Touch and eye contact have been shown to be an essential part of the physician-patient relationship and healing in and of themselves. A patient of mine once told me that she wished someone could see through her eyes and feel what it is to live with her chronic condition. The reality is that I try. I must because that is how our brains are wired. Empathy requires that to some degree, I model what others are feeling.

In medical school I was taught that it was important to empathize, but not sympathize. The intended lesson was for physicians in training to learn how to go home at the end of each day and be unaffected by the pain and suffering that we witnessed in the medical world. But our neuroanatomy precludes this model of training, especially in family medicine. We have to use every tool at our disposal to care for an undifferentiated complex population, and empathy is supremely important. However, there is a cost. We feel our patient’s pain. I have learned how to grieve efficiently.

Computers work differently, in series rather than in parallel and often the complex interplay experienced in the exam room does not translate to an electronic record. Further, stressful events may limit the use of an EHR entirely. I recently had such an experience. There was a tragic accident during a snowstorm, and after resuscitation I could not transfer my patient to a tertiary care hospital because of the weather. For 12 hours, I sat at her bedside with her family, completely in tune with my dying patient, her family and the team I was working with. For days after, I found that I was unable to use my EHR. I could see patients. I needed to see patients. But I could not use the EHR. It was like I had EHR aphasia, and it frustrated me immensely.

The burnout rate among family physicians has increased significantly since the advent of the EHR. There are many reasons for this, including increased administrative burden, less time per patient, and less time for family and exercise, which all leaves us with a feeling of decreased autonomy. Perhaps one of the problems is that computers are interfering with our ability to connect with our patients. Checking boxes decreases our ability to hold eye contact, and computers often get in the way of patient care. We need this connection as much as our patients do.

We feel the pain of our patients. To deny this is to discount one of the primary ways that we interact with one another. Our brains are wired to feel what others are feeling, and we need empathy if we are to care for our patients. And as with all gifts, there is a cost. We take some of our patient’s pain onto ourselves and share their burden. We need to recognize that as a result we often are grieving, and that this is the natural consequence of what we do.

We need to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, turn to loved ones, have faith in a higher power and appreciate beauty where we find it. That was exactly my intention when I walked outside late that cold night to watch and to wonder at the phenomenon of the aurora borealis.

John Cullen, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.


Wednesday Mar 23, 2016

Meet the Press: Why Working With the Media Makes Sense

When I woke up on March 17, I found more than three dozen messages from AAFP members in my voicemail and email. They weren’t calling or writing to tell me Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

The previous evening, The New York Times had posted a lengthy feature story about the challenge of balancing the need to curb opioid abuse with the need to help patients who have legitimate pain in a primary care practice. That practice, in this case, happened to be mine. A reporter and a photographer spent several days in Milford, Neb., shadowing me, interviewing my patients (and their families) and taking photographs. The result was an excellent, in-depth piece that makes it clear for any legislator, regulator or payer paying attention that this is not a situation that calls for a quick fix. This is a complex problem that will require a well-considered solution. Our patients do not need a one-size-fits-all approach to health care, and our members do not need a government-approved algorithm to determine treatment.

The family physicians who contacted me thanked me for helping tell this important story. Some said it must have been "onerous" to have a journalist in my exam rooms for several days. The reality is that I didn't mind at all, and my patients were eager to tell their stories -- often sharing extremely personal details with The Times and its 2.1 million readers. Nebraska is one of many states taking measures to limit opioid prescribing, and patients with compression fractures, cancer, fibromyalgia and more shared how such limitations will affect their ability to manage their pain and, thus, their ability to function and go about their daily routines.

My patients are not drug seekers but everyday people with their own perspectives on an issue that affects them greatly. They personalized the issue for a wide audience.

After spending a few days with me, the journalist got it. At one point, reporter Jan Hoffman said to me, "These aren't pain patients. They're just patients."

Exactly.

These are people with complex conditions and co-morbidities that are intertwined. Their pain is just one chapter of a much longer book. By sharing these stories we hope people can begin to understand how complicated this issue truly is.

When I met with legislators recently on Capitol Hill, they were eager for a solution to the opioid crisis. "We have to do something" was a frequent refrain. It's true that we have rising numbers of overdoses and accidental deaths, but it also is true that we need a well-developed plan and not a Band-Aid. If we move too rapidly, the complexity of the situation could get lost. We also need to stop pointing fingers at doctors and patients and get to the issue of treating pain effectively.

During her time with me, Jan saw patients dealing with issues like renal failure, heart failure and an array of physical problems. At one point, she asked me, "Is there anything you don't do?" Not only did she walk away with a greater understanding of the opioid issue, Jan also saw the breadth and depth of family medicine.

I'm excited to see such a well-written story with a family medicine perspective in a publication with such a large audience. Our stories -- and also our patients’ stories -- have power and value in our states and communities when we tell them at the local level. Showing your local media and/or your legislators how issues affect family physicians and the families we care for is time well spent.

Robert Wergin, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.

Tuesday Mar 22, 2016

Lessons Learned From the Match

Since my previous blog post about my experiences along the residency interview trail, I’ve been touched by the number of friends (many who I hadn’t spoken to in years) who reached out with either words of encouragement or requests for advice regarding my journey to pursue family medicine.

My vision of providing quality health care for all was shaped by a family physician who founded a mobile clinic for his community’s underserved -- primarily homeless -- population. It's a vision of care that isn't limited to the confines of a four-walled clinic. It's primary care that improves the physical and mental health of the community I serve.

My medical school doesn't have a family medicine department, but I was one of three Johns Hopkins students who matched into family medicine. Here I am (second from left, Swedish Family Medicine Residency) celebrating with Adi Rattner (far left, Boston University Medical Center), and Rhianon Liu (right, Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa) after opening our letters. Family physician and faculty adviser Nancy Barr, M.D., also is pictured.

I continued to clarify this vision throughout medical school and searched for family medicine residency programs that could further structure my growth. On March 18, I learned which program I matched into, along with more than 3,100 other new family medicine residents. This was the seventh year in a row that the number of students matching into family medicine has increased.

Match Day is not only a pivotal life event that celebrates the latest class of future physicians leaping forward, but also a day of inspiration for all medical students. I recall peering down onto the second floor atrium of our medical school building, watching the prior graduating students open their envelopes simultaneously. It has been exhilarating to watch people’s expressions change as they learn their destiny. This year, it was my turn to be the one jumping up and down, face plastered with a giant smile, hugging friends nonstop as we all learned of our futures.   

Medical students are energized by fourth years who match into a specialty of their personal interests, and they’re optimistic that they, too, can achieve their aspirations.

But despite all the excitement exuded by the graduating seniors, this special day may also elicit stress. Questions immediately arise.

"How can I be a strong applicant like him/her?"

"What activities should I get involved with?"

"Who should I be working with, and who should I be asking to write letters of recommendation for me?" 

Without a family medicine department, medical students at my institution relied heavily on upperclassmen, outside mentorship, and the AAFP website for answers. Here is some of the most high-yield advice I received:

  • Schedule a family medicine rotation in your third year. Family medicine isn't a required clerkship at every medical school. I was fortunate enough to rotate at a nearby hospital as a third-year medical student, which allowed me to gain exposure to family medicine early on. Primary care is delivered in so many ways, so consider experiencing it in a setting you're interested in -- rural, urban, underserved, community hospital, and many more. Each setting may also have specific clinical interests such as sports medicine, maternal care, geriatrics and others.
  • Attend the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students. Due to family medicine's broad scope of practice, this conference benefits students of all specialty interests. First and second years gain a better understating of what family medicine is and the bright future it holds. Third and fourth years explore hundreds of residency programs and identify potential programs they want to apply to.
  • Strolling Through the Match provides a great overview of the residency application process, and it’s free! Ask your Family Medicine Interest Group or local state academy for hard copies.
  • Get involved with the AAFP. The Academy offers incredible opportunities to work closely with inspiring family physicians and future leaders of health care. Positions range from the student level -- such as FMIGs -- all the way up to sitting on the Board of Directors at the national level. I started out as a member of my state academy, served on an AAFP commission and later ran for the Board. I've learned so much and loved every minute!  

When people ask me if family medicine is the right fit for them, I first ask what inspired them to pursue medicine. Was it a specific mentor, patient or experience? Furthermore, how did they initially envision practicing medicine, and how has that vision changed throughout medical school? I also refer people to a great article that answers frequently asked questions about the importance of family medicine.

Throughout medical school, I often reflected on the family physician who shaped my perspective on medicine. As a third year, I realized I truly liked every rotation, but I often saw patients admitted for conditions that could have been prevented if they had a primary care physician. The holistic, full-scope care delivered on my family medicine rotation demonstrated to me a strong future for primary care, and I wanted to be a part of it.

On March 18, I nervously scrambled to FaceTime my parents while counting down until the clock struck noon, and then I opened my sealed envelope. I'm honored to announce that I will be joining my No. 1 program, Swedish Family Medicine Residency at Cherry Hill in Seattle!

Many thanks to my family, friends, mentors, and everyone I have met in family medicine for their unwavering support. I have been so fortunate to be blessed with these great opportunities to grow as an individual as well as a future physician. I hope my personal story will inspire students to achieve their dreams, too, and show them it isn't a one-person journey.

Tiffany Ho, M.P.H., is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Monday Mar 14, 2016

FPs Must Demystify Colorectal Cancer Screening

During the nearly two decades I worked as a health correspondent for our local NBC affiliate, my cameraman was a kind, funny man who seemed to know everyone in town. Phil not only was my colleague but also my friend.

Phil and I talked about the health segments we were working on, and he also frequently asked my opinion about health issues he and his family members were dealing with. He wanted my perspective on immunizations, medications and more.

Unfortunately, one health topic Phil never asked me about was colorectal cancer. I was heartbroken when I learned this wonderful man recently died a preventable death just a few weeks shy of his 61st birthday.

If Phil had asked me about colorectal cancer, I would have told him that his age and his race put him at increased risk, and screening would have been appropriate. Blacks have the highest incidence of colorectal cancer and the highest mortality rates of all racial groups.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, yet nearly one-third of adults ages 50 to 75 aren't screened as recommended. Two years ago, the AAFP joined the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, which seeks to increase the percentage of adults ages 50 and older who are screened to 80 percent by 2018. It has been estimated that reaching that goal would avert roughly 280,000 new cancer cases and 200,000 cancer deaths within 20 years.

Family physicians can help by screening patients -- or referring patients to screening when appropriate -- and also by answering questions and demystifying the process.

It's worth noting that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued a draft of updated screening recommendations in October. The Academy has offered feedback for the final recommendation, which is pending.

Others are doing research to learn how we can increase screening rates and close gaps in care. For example, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) -- an independent nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality and relevance of evidence available to help patients, physicians and others make informed health decisions -- is funding several projects related to colorectal cancer screening and treatment.

  • Screening rates are substantially lower among Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites. A project at Thomas Jefferson University aims to improve screening rates among Hispanics by implementing an intervention that will identify the participant's preferred screening test and work with patients and their primary care providers to facilitate testing.
  • A project at Indiana University will provide clinical evidence and patient input to guide decision-aid designers on how to present patients with comparative effectiveness information about screening methods.
  • A North Carolina project aims to survey more than 1,000 colorectal cancer patients to develop measures for use in improving communications between physicians and patients.

Years ago, I lost an aunt to colorectal cancer in an era when screening was not yet widely accepted. She often was on my mind when I spent years lobbying in my state's capital for legislation that now requires insurers to cover screening.

Today, patients have more access to care and more options for potentially life-saving screening. It is up to us to ensure that they understand their risks and their choices.

Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the AAFP.

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