Family medicine puts the emphasis on relationships

BY DR. MICHELLE BECKER
Special to Florida Weekly

The American Academy of Family Physicians defines family medicine as “the medical specialty which provides continuing, comprehensive health care for the individual and family. It is a specialty in breadth that integrates the biological, clinical and behavioral sciences. The scope of family medicine encompasses all ages, both sexes, each organ system and every disease entity.”

More simply, your family medicine physician is there to promote overall health and advocate all-encompassing well-being for people of all ages.

But family medicine is much more.

Treating families, sometimes four generations at a time, from the newborn baby to great grandparent and everyone in between, requires that the family medicine physician have a remarkable understanding of the relationships that exist between actual family members.

One of the most common questions I am asked is how someone becomes a physician and then a family medicine physician. The process takes about 11 years.

Typically, a doctor first obtains a bachelor’s degree in one of the core sciences. Then, another four years is spent at a medical school earning a doctorate degree in allopathic medicine (i.e., an M.D.) or in osteopathic medicine (i.e., a D.O.). After that comes a residency, which for family medicine is another three years of specialty training focusing on all that being a family doctor entails.

Once upon a time, after becoming a physician, one could hang his or her shingle and immediately begin practice as a “general practitioner.” Back then, being a “specialist” meant completing more formal training in residency — a sort of apprenticeship where one learns their craft by focusing on a particular organ or organ system, usually over the course of three to five years.

Oh, but how times have changed. Today’s primary care physicians, including those who practice family medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine, are also regarded as “specialists” who are trained to treat children and adults of all ages.

In my case, after earning a bachelor of science in biological sciences from the University of Cincinnati, I earned a doctor of medicine at the Medical College of Ohio. During my family medicine clinical rotation, I met Dr. Archie Bedell, a true pioneer in family medicine who also happened to be director of the Mercy Health Partners, St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center Family Medicine Residency Program in Toledo. An old-fashioned family doctor and brilliant clinician, Dr. Bedell once graced the Vaudeville stage in between making house calls.

There is no doubt that my “character” as a family doctor was greatly influenced by Dr. Bedell’s emphasis on personal care and traditional values.

These days, when I walk into the room to see a patient, I am not just a doctor, but also a human being able to connect in a way that is difficult to put into words.

The advice and treatment that occurs in the exam room is, on one level, medical science. But just as important is the time that is shared between a unique individual and a medical advisor, confidante and even friend. Helping each person realize he or she can attain the greatest possible health is the family medicine doctor’s responsibility.

As family medicine physicians, we are, in a sense, mechanics of the flesh — sizing up health and disease, this part and that, in order to sustain health, prevent disease or “fix” a problem of the patient.

But there is so much more to the sacred relationship between the patient and the doctor. Yes, there is a common goal between patient and physician toward quality of life and building greater health. But there is also something else, a special bond that develops from a unique type of human connection and that makes this line of work one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Family medicine is a very special place, where professionalism, compassion, science and emotion blur into one another. Being a family medicine physician is not just what I do, but who I am. ¦

— Dr. Michelle Becker is a specialist in family medicine with Physicians Regional Healthcare System.