Member of the Month: Sherri Onyiego, MD
Houston FP revels in the science of care
By Perdita Henry
Sherri Onyiego, MD, FAAFP, is an only child hailing from Monroe, Louisiana. Her adolescence was made bright by supportive parents and a tight-knit community that encouraged her to excel in her academic pursuits and follow her passion wherever it might lead. Onyiego developed an interest in science that was fed by teachers throughout her primary education.
Her interest in science led her to medical school and ultimately to a successful career as a family physician with a special interest in HIV/AIDS care. Today she is an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine Department of Family and Community Medicine, the medical director of San José Clinic, the first safety-net clinic of Houston, and a primary care physician at Thomas Street Health Center, part of the Harris Health System, a freestanding comprehensive HIV/AIDS clinic.
I got to speak with Onyiego about what sparked her interest in family medicine, how research on HIV replication led her to look for ways to contribute to science in more tangible ways, and what led her to participate in the inaugural session of the Family Medicine Leadership Experience.
Why did you choose family medicine, what’s your favorite aspect of it, and were you inspired by anyone?
My community was instrumental in my formative years, and for me family medicine is a specialty that shapes and impacts the communities in which we all live. My favorite aspect of family medicine is building, developing, and cultivating relationships with my patients, who ultimately go back into their respective communities and impact change.
I love being able to see my patients at various points in their lives, the ability to share a snapshot of the diverse experiences they go through and connect with them, which is all possible because of the continuity of care that family medicine offers. I always tell my student’s that I learn from my patients so I strive to instill that philosophy in them as well. I think it’s important to let my patient’s share their stories. It’s a wonderful experience to have them share so much of their lives with you over the years and to ultimately have impact in their overall wellbeing is truly humbling. This is what I love about family medicine.
I understand you do a fair amount of HIV care. What is it about this work that inspires you?
This interest led to my academic pursuits, both to major in pre-med in college and later to my work in graduate school where I did research on a novel compound that targeted HIV replication. It was this experience that sparked my interest and inspired me to contribute to science in more tangible ways by providing direct patient care, especially to those patients with HIV/AIDS. I had a clinical rotation while in my third year of medical school in Miami, Florida and I was fortunate to work with a family physician who had a high number of patients with HIV. I was truly impressed by the level of comprehensive care he could provide to a community that otherwise may have been marginalized and forgotten. This also allowed me to see that I could have the type of clinical practice I always desired, marrying family medicine and HIV medicine.
After completing my family medicine residency at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans, I was given an amazing opportunity to do an HIV fellowship at UT Houston.
I love the fact that many of the patients in my HIV practice have overcome so many barriers of past experiences. I draw on the strength and resiliency of many of my patients. It’s rewarding to see the “Lazarus effect” many patients experience. They begin treatment with failing and poor immunological status and emerge healthier and stronger with antiretroviral therapy.
HIV/AIDS is not spoken about as much as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. What do you wish more people understood about the virus and its current effect on our communities?
The message is still present but in a different light. Many new developments in this field have been made since the 80s and 90s. There is still a significant percentage of people in the United States who are unaware of their positive status, so it’s important to test and screen, even if someone looks healthy or may be from a demographic group that is not the “typical HIV/AIDS patient.”
The good news is many patients are living much longer and we are essentially managing HIV as a chronic illness like hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and hyperlipidemia. We emphasize the importance of adherence to improve their longevity but also to reduce the risk of transmission to others. A major focus is now on prevention as a strategy for controlling the spread of HIV to those who are at risk of transmission. In serodiscordant relationships -- meaning couples where one partner is positive and the other is negative -- we can significantly reduce the chances of the HIV-negative partner becoming infected by offering pre-exposure prophylaxis medication. Many family physicians should feel confident in their ability to manage these issues.
You were one of the first to take part in the Family Medicine Leadership Experience. What inspired you to participate?
I was looking for more opportunities for professional development and I also wanted to get more involved with TAFP. I thought doing the FMLE would be a great opportunity to enhance my skill set and network with other family physicians across the state.
How do you think about leadership now that you’ve completed FMLE?
A dear colleague refers to something called authentic leadership, which means staying true to the core values and beliefs you stand for. Effective leaders are adaptive, responsible, and responsive to the teams in which they are called to serve. FMLE definitely gave me tools to become a more effective and authentic leader.
How has participating in FMLE changed you professionally?
It has given me the confidence to engage and take steps to further my career development and community involvement. FMLE has increased my personal engagement and visibility in TAFP. I now serve on the Membership and Member Services Commission and as an officer in the local Harris County Academy of Family Physicians chapter. I am also involved in advocacy work in another professional organization. The confidence to lend my voice to impact policy change has been strengthened because of the Family Medicine Leadership Experience.
What advice would you give to physicians thinking about participating in FMLE?
It’s a valuable and rewarding program. You’ll learn tools about personality styles, networking, negotiations, media training, and advocacy. More importantly, it allows you to experience firsthand the commitment and value TAFP staff places in its members to develop such a wonderful program committed to molding and creating future leaders of this outstanding Academy.
For more information on the Family Medicine Leadership Experience, visit
TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting TAFP by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (512) 329-8666. View past Members of the Month here.