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Monday May 23, 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.

Monday Mar 07, 2016

E-prescribing Holds Potential to Curb Opioid Abuse

Nearly 2 million Americans have substance use disorders involving prescription pain relievers. Roughly 44 of them will die today, and 44 more the day after that, because prescription opioid abuse leads to more than 16,000 deaths each year.

The problem is complex, and there are no easy answers. However, one step we should all be considering seems obvious. Since Vermont came on board in August, electronic prescribing of controlled substances is now possible in all 50 states. E-prescribing provides better tracking and reduces diversion by creating a direct link between the physician and the pharmacy.

Conversely, paper prescriptions can be easily manipulated. Signatures can be forged. Numbers can be altered. And paper prescriptions can be lost or given to -- or stolen by -- others.

According to a report published in May 2015, nearly three-fourths of U.S. pharmacies were capable of receiving electronic prescriptions for controlled substances in 2014. Based on recent conversations with industry sources, the number now may be closer to 85 percent.

So if e-prescribing is the answer to reducing death and diversion, physicians must be rushing to get on board, right?

Not yet.

According to that same May 2015 report, only 1.4 percent of physicians who write physicians for controlled substances are set up to do so electronically. The fault, however, doesn't lie solely with prescribers.

In many cases, physicians are handcuffed by the limitations of their electronic health records systems and vendors' reluctance to make any changes without additional investments. Instead, they would prefer to nickel and dime physicians while people continue to die.

Family physicians are repeatedly asked by payers, the administration and others to make changes that require investment. Last year, the Academy joined a White House-led effort to curb opioid abuse. As part of that initiative, the Academy set goals to increase

  • family physician education in appropriate opioid prescribing practices,
  • the number of family physicians who complete training in how to provide medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, and
  • overall awareness about opioid abuse and pain management.

The Academy also joined the AMA Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, a group of more than two dozen physician organizations seeking to identify best practices to combat abuse and implement those practices nationwide.

The White House asked for our help, and we've responded. Family physicians are taking more education about opioids and pain management. According to the American Board of Family Medicine, more than 22,700 family physicians have completed the ABFM's pain management self-assessment module in the past six years. Furthermore, in each of the past four years, more than 16,000 family physicians per year have reported CME credits related to pain management or opioids, and those FPs reported completing an average of eight CME credits on this important topic.

Now it is time for electronic health record system vendors to also take responsibility for public health and ensure physicians have the tools available to address this crisis without the burden of another crippling expense.

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

Tuesday Mar 01, 2016

Teaching Abroad Helps Grow Family of Family Medicine

I recently returned from Saudi Arabia, my fourth trip there in the past seven years and the first with a new passport. Planning for the trip gave me the occasion to thumb through my old, expired passport and reflect on all the places I have traveled to on behalf of the AAFP's Advanced Life Support in Obstetrics (ALSO) program.

Lots of memories -- joyful and wonderful experiences, frustrating travel disruptions and memorable international colleagues who struggled to provide the best possible medical care under often challenging circumstances.

And yet, in my years of teaching ALSO in resource-challenged countries, I rarely encountered family physicians providing maternity care. In almost every case, the participants in the global ALSO courses were obstetricians or nurse midwives. In many of the countries I have visited, family medicine is not well established, and physicians who provide general medical care in the community rarely interact with hospitals or provide maternity care.

That clearly is changing around the world as family medicine residency programs are established and graduates enter their communities to provide comprehensive, family-centered care across generations.

In decades past, many U.S. physicians generally thought of global medicine as missionary medicine. American doctors, the thinking went, travel to developing countries to provide short-term medical care to underserved populations, often in association with philanthropic and faith-based organizations. But there are incredible examples of dedicated family physicians who contribute their time, energy and funds to support international programs and provide continuity of resources to communities that otherwise would not have health care. Several of my extraordinary community colleagues rank among them.

The AAFP partnered with the Kansas-based non-profit organization Heart to Heart International and the AAFP Foundation to start Physicians with Heart in the former Soviet Union in 1993. In nearly two decades, the project helped provide support, training and mentorship to local family medicine associations and family physicians in the countries of the post-Soviet era. In collaboration with local health authorities and ministries of health, Physicians with Heart developed and conducted family medicine education and training events. The project also coordinated airlifts of much needed pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and supplies, as well as educational materials.  

I got started in international and global medicine when Physicians with Heart brought the ALSO course to the former Soviet Union. Today, the Academy continues to support our members in their global health work and initiatives to support nascent family medicine associations, provide basic and continuing medical education, sustain ongoing family medicine residency training, and help support family physicians in countries where the specialty is having difficulty becoming established and growing.

Our Academy members' participation in the World Organization of Family Doctors, or Wonca, has expanded our international horizons even further. The incredible energy and enthusiasm of our young family physicians in Wonca's Polaris Movement for New and Future Family Physicians in North America is wonderful testimony to the realization that we are one global community, all striving to improve the life and health of those we serve.

Many medical school applicants have already participated in global health activities, and many U.S. medical schools and family medicine residency programs have well-established international and global health rotations, areas of concentration and global health tracks. Involvement in global health lets us see and learn more about conditions that are rare in U.S. medical practice. But it also equips us to provide care to underserved communities and multi-cultural populations in the United States, including refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers and other transnational groups.  

It is important to remember how much we can learn from our international colleagues. The United States ranks last among the most highly developed nations in life expectancy, penetration of universal preventive health measures and global cost of care. Those countries that have better health care outcomes with lower costs have strong family medicine and primary care communities, as well as proven strategies to ensure primary care access for everyone.

I started this blog talking about my recent trip to Saudi Arabia for a reason. You see, during my second trip to Riyadh in 2011 I was introduced to Abdullah al-Owayed, M.D., a United Kingdom-trained family physician who was the first chair of the first department of family medicine in Saudi Arabia. I was asked to give a talk on the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) to a group of family physicians, all of whom had received their primary care training outside Saudi Arabia. Months after that visit, al-Owayed came to the United States and spent time in my group practice learning about our PCMH journey, and about our practice’s relationships with our local medical school and family medicine residency program.

On his return to Saudi Arabia, al-Owayed established his country's first family medicine residency. Just last month, I had the pleasure of having one of the first graduates from that residency participate in an ALSO instructor course. She is one of the pioneers of the new generation of family physicians in Saudi Arabia, providing maternity care as part of a comprehensive, full-scope family medicine practice.

How can you contribute to family medicine's development abroad? The AAFP has several networking mechanisms that may help you match to your interests and abilities with global health needs and efforts. An AAFP member interest group focused on global health and a number of member-initiated regional groups, as well as the annual AAFP Family Medicine Global Health Workshop, can provide you with resources, member experience and connections for your global health engagement. And the Academy's Center for Global Health Initiatives supports the professional needs of AAFP members who want to be globally engaged.

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

Tuesday Feb 23, 2016

Finding Right Fit Key to Match Process

"I'm going into family medicine."

This statement could be easily overheard in a multitude of settings, including the classroom, clinic, hospital or community. Yet it took me three years to develop the confidence to openly express my true passion.

Here I am visiting Yosemite National Park between residency interviews in California. I interviewed at 11 programs from Seattle to San Diego. Match Day is March 18.

Although I already was interested in family medicine before entering medical school and specified my interest upon matriculation, I was surprised to meet a lot of resistance toward my chosen specialty.

While attending one of 10 U.S. medical schools that lacks a family medicine department, I have listened to multiple lecturers comment on how family medicine "will be replaced by nurse practitioners and physician assistants," and I have been told that I am "too smart" for the field. This quickly taught me to tread cautiously. I would say things like, "I'm interested in primary care but open to other specialties," to ward off unwanted advice.

I didn't express my interest in family medicine again until during a family medicine elective rotation at a nearby community hospital. It felt so validating to hear words of encouragement from both the residents and faculty. Furthermore, the diverse range of patients I interacted with -- both inpatient and outpatient -- reminded me of the primary reason why I chose to pursue a career in medicine: to provide quality healthcare for all, regardless of background.

As I started the residency application process, I quickly realized how dramatically different residency programs could be. I initially searched for programs through the AAFP Family Medicine Residency Directory, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of programs in ONE state. I contacted my family medicine advisor from the community hospital (who ended up being the mentor for all three of the family medicine applicants from my school), and the first question she asked me was "What kind of program are you looking for?"

This simple question stumped me. While my classmates who were pursuing subspecialty interests were focused on finding large academic institutions with strong reputations and opportunities for fellowships, I had the unique opportunity to reflect on the differences between a community-based program affiliated with a medical school versus one not affiliated with a medical school, rural versus urban, underserved settings, as well as opposed or unopposed programs.

Most importantly, my mentor pushed me to probe deeper and contemplate how I envisioned practicing medicine. Based on my goals, we reviewed programs whose mission and philosophy seemed to align with my own. I had never heard of half the programs she suggested, but I maintained an open mind and applied to them.  

Once I started on the interview trail, my fellow classmates and I often shared our interview experiences, and we noticed dramatic differences between the processes followed by primary care and surgical subspecialty programs.

  • My pre-interview dinners typically occurred in a resident's house, sometimes with homemade food while my classmates often went to either a happy hour or a three-course, sit-down meal.
  • My interview days had three to 12 applicants compared to my classmates' sizeable 30- to 40-person groups.
  • I typically had two to three interviews that lasted 30 to 60 minutes, while my classmates had up to 10 interviews, lasting 15 to 20 minutes each.
  • The questions I was asked focused on getting to know more about me, my view of wellness and my vision of family medicine in 10 years. My classmates reported occasionally answering medical knowledge or research questions.
  • My interview days lasted approximately five to six hours. In contrast, my classmates' days lasted up to 10 hours.
  • My interviewers were more likely to ask me, "Why is X program a good fit for YOU” rather than “Why are YOU a good fit for X program?"

How often do you hear medical students comment on finding the right "fit"? That seemed to be a much bigger concern to the family medicine programs than the subspecialty programs. The process of the Match should be a two-way process in which not only is the program looking for particular characteristics in a candidate, but that the program knows candidates are also seeking specific qualities.

The applicants I met from across the country shared their various visions of how they wanted to practice family medicine, and these interests sparked unique discussions throughout the interview day as well as at dinner. My appreciation and pride for family medicine continued to grow throughout the interview trail as I learned more about the increasingly diverse scope of care family medicine can provide.  

The most difficult part of the application process isn’t necessarily the interviewing, but rather, the rank lists (which are due this week). Each program has a unique approach to training future family physicians. Some programs' styles paralleled well with my own vision, and I did indeed experience the visceral reaction people often label as a “gut feeling of finding the one.” Certain programs spoke to my goal of training in an underserved area focused on community-oriented primary care with dedicated time focused on behavioral health as well as opportunities to pursue the numerous other interests I have.

Ultimately, while some of my classmates created extensive excel sheets to numerically rank factors, and based their decision on the total sum, I viewed each program as a potentially new family. The most important part of a family is the people who are willing to support each other through the ups and downs presented in life's journey. In the end, I know I’ll get great training no matter where I go, but it's the people who matter the most to me.

This journey on the interview trail has taught me how unique family medicine is compared to other specialties. I’ve met a lot of incredible individuals during this process, and I would be honored to grow and learn with them.

I'm proud to say that I'm going to become a family physician. Soon, I'll find out where.

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

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.