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Thursday Feb 19, 2015

Thomas Wolfe Had It Wrong: You Can Go Home Again

The only doctor who ever treated me while I was growing up was the local general practitioner, so my concept of a physician was someone who took care of everyone -- from birth to end of life -- and was involved in the community. Being exposed to subspecialty care during medical school and residency didn't change my perception of what I was meant to do. I knew I wanted to be a "real doctor."

Photo Courtesy Megan Sonnier

Here I am talking to a patient who -- like many in my hometown practice -- I've known for decades. In fact, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I was a high school student applying for a scholarship at the University of Alabama.

Not to gainsay Thomas Wolfe's compelling novel You Can't Go Home Again, but when I left Bibb County, Ala., to attend medical school in Mobile in 1975, that was exactly what I planned to do. I wanted to practice family medicine in my community.

I live in Brent, Ala., and work in Centreville. These neighboring small towns run together and are home to roughly 6,000 people combined. When I look at my patient list in the morning, I often know patients' complaints before I see them because I've already heard about their illnesses, conditions or concerns at church, in the stores or from my nurse.

At the heart of primary care is the idea that patients should have an ongoing relationship with a family physician they know and trust. I have that kind of relationship with my patients because I've lived here most of my life, and I've practiced medicine here for more than 30 years.

There were only two other physicians in the county -- both family physicians -- when I started my practice in 1982. One was another local who had come home to practice. One thing we learned about starting new practices in our hometown is that folks typically fall into one of three groups:

  • People who didn't know you before you became a physician or moved to town while you were away at medical school or residency;
  • People who knew you before you were a physician and will never come to you for care because they still think of you as a kid; and 
  • People who knew you before you were a physician and won't see any other doctor because they know and trust you.

Patients should have the right to choose their physician, and I understand that some of my old high-school classmates might be uncomfortable being patients of mine -- particularly women. On the other hand, I've delivered the babies of some of my former classmates, so it works both ways. My patient panel also includes former teachers, coaches and my high-school principal.

My wife grew up in a small town, too, and when I finished residency, we visited a few other communities before we decided where to start my practice. In fact, I had an offer to join a friend's practice in another location. But in the end, we couldn't find anything we liked better than my hometown.

I've built strong relationships in this community. To me, that's part of being a family physician. And I love what I do.

John Meigs, M.D., is speaker of the Congress of Delegates, the governing body of the AAFP.

Posted at 06:00PM Feb 19, 2015 by John Meigs, M.D.

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