Assessing the value of a family physician

By Melissa Gerdes, M.D.
TAFP President, 2010-2011

Our Academy’s vision statement begins: “The Texas Academy of Family Physicians is dedicated to the promotion of a health care environment that values the vital role of family physicians.” I spoke of the importance of recognizing and promoting the value of Texas family physicians in my installation speech. It will take all of us doing what family physicians do every day: taking care of ALL Texans, knowing them, and tailoring care to individuals and communities.

How do we create value? How do family physicians feel valued? If we equate value to payment, I am afraid we will always be disappointed. Perhaps if our current triangular third-party payer system evolves, payment may provide a sense of being valued. For now, I would suggest we focus on the true ways in which family physicians are already valued. In my short four months as president, I have seen ample evidence that family physicians do play a vital role in our health care system and that people value us.

The first evidence came on my way back from Annual Session in San Antonio. I have to admit I was doing a little eavesdropping sitting at a Chili’s in Hutto. What I heard made me very hopeful that our message is getting out. The three individuals who were sitting in the booth behind me were reviewing their morning. One gentleman, sporting a knee brace and walking cane, had obviously just visited with a specialist. The other two asked how his visit had gone and how he liked the physician. The man with the knee affliction responded that he did not know why he needed to see so many different physicians.

One of the others started talking about our medical system. “You start with your family doctor. He tries to figure out your problem. If he is honest, he will admit when he doesn’t know the answer and send you to another physician who does.” The woman went on to describe her foot problem. She could not decide which doctor to see about it. “I mean, you can’t just look in the phone book for a doctor anymore. Did you know there are six different types of doctors in the phone book who treat the foot? My family doctor knew who I should see, though.”

The second man asked the first if he felt better about his doctors now. “You were ready to throw in the towel on the last group.” The man responded, “Yes, I really like [my family doctor]. It all comes down to bedside manner. I feel he really listens to me.” I almost turned around and asked this group to star in an ad for family medicine.

With this year’s legislative agenda, one would hope family physicians have value in the eyes of Texas legislators. I can tell you we do. Recently, I spent the day as Physician of the Day at the Capitol. For those of you who have done this, you will know what I am talking about. A family physician serves in the capitol clinic alongside nurse practitioner Tim Flynn. Anyone on the capitol grounds can stop in for free minor medical care. In return for volunteering, the physician is introduced and thanked on the Senate and House floors. As I was wearing my white coat, several people came up to me and thanked me for what I do. Even Gov. Rick Perry thanked me for serving. What an honor! You can find out more about the Physician of the Day program or sign up as a Key Contact for your legislator on the Academy’s website, www.tafp.org.

What can you do to help recognize and promote family physicians? First of all, thank you all for being family physicians. In my installation speech, I called on each of you to do your part in promoting family medicine. I hope you are telling people what you do. Write articles in your papers; serve as a health resource for local radio or television stations. I encourage you to volunteer time, money, or advice where you see a need. Continue playing a vital role in all your communities. Recognize your colleagues for their contributions. Nominate a colleague for an award. TAFP is collecting annual award nominations now. Just contact the staff or visit the website to do so.

In the end, our value comes down to how patients see us. This week, I was visited by a longtime patient of mine. She had been battling lymphoma at a regional oncology hospital. Though I was following along with her care, I had not seen her in the office in nearly two years. She was proud to be in remission for a year. The first thing she did was to give me a hug and thank me for diagnosing her and saving her life. She also thanked me for seeing her family and helping them through the past two years. As I hugged her back, just she and I in an exam room, I thought, “This is what family medicine is all about.”

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