Changing Hearts

2012 Family Physician of the Year Inspires Exceptional Care for Those With Nowhere Else to Turn

September 13, 2011 02:40 pm Jessica Pupillo

In 1993, Richard Kovar, M.D., traveled to Romania as a volunteer working to improve conditions for the country's children.

"The country was a mess, in shambles," he recalls.

Following the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, children had been abandoned by their parents, and many were living in orphanages. Upon arriving, Kovar observed a horrifying practice. Aside from placing porridge in their cribs, orphanage staff avoided all contact with kids who had physical deformities.

Story Highlights

  • The AAFP's 2012 Family Physician of the Year is Richard Kovar, M.D., medical director at Country Doctor Community Health Centers in Seattle.
  • Kovar's early experiences in health care highlighted the health-care disparities between indigent people and the rest of the country.
  • His experiences in the United States and a handful of other countries have left Kovar with an all-consuming passion for providing safety-net care.

Day after day, as he made his rounds through the orphanage, Kovar allowed these typically shunned kids to climb into his lap, hang from his back or sit at his side.

"I never said a word to the staff," says Kovar. "After a number of months, there was a transformation. The staff were touching and holding these children. This was so rewarding. I could change their hearts."

Although this particular story unfolded thousands of miles away from Kovar's Seattle clinic, it's business-as-usual for the warm and caring doctor, says long-time colleague Allison Voinot, R.N. "He just jumps in and does things; he doesn't hesitate."

Whether he's coordinating specialty care for a homeless patient, providing a pro bono political asylum medical exam or volunteering in war-torn countries, one thing is certain: Kovar is passionate about providing safety-net care.

Kovar's passion and dedication to community health has earned him the title of the AAFP's 2012 Family Physician of the Year. The award honors one outstanding American family physician who provides patients with compassionate and comprehensive care and serves as a role model professionally and personally in his or her community, to other health professionals, and to residents and medical students.

2012 Family Physician of the Year Finalists

The following physicians were finalists in the competition for the 2012 Family Physician of the Year.

  • Michael Abouassaly, M.D., of West Burlington, Iowa
  • Peter Broderick, M.D., of Modesto, Calif.
  • Tan Platt, M.D., of Columbia, S.C.
  • David Yost, M.D., of Pinetop, Ariz.
  • Bonnie Reagan, M.D., of Portland, Ore.

A Family Tradition

Kovar was inspired to go into medicine by his uncle, a pediatrician in Passaic, N.J., who continued to provide medical care in his community despite widespread white flight. However, the importance of safety-net care didn't truly crystallize for Kovar until, in an undergraduate public health course, he saw the health-care disparities between indigent people and the rest of the country. It was an eye-opening lesson, one that sparked more than 30 years in community health in the United States and a handful of international adventures to places like Iraq, Sudan, Thailand and Romania.

For the past 20 years, Kovar has been a family physician and the medical director at Country Doctor Community Health Centers in Seattle. The centers provide comprehensive care to a largely low-income, underserved and uninsured patient base.

"I've really been able to have a great blend of patient care first, administration, education and political advocacy," says Kovar.

Continuity of care is at the core of the services he provides to his patients. Even the most difficult patients -- those who are homeless, who have advanced diseases, who struggle with addiction -- grow to trust Kovar.

"We have chronic no-show patients because their lives are up in the air," Voinot says. Although Country Doctor requires appointments, for these patients, Voinot has standing orders to place them on Kovar's schedule. "If they're finally here, he wants to make sure they get their care.

His trips abroad to places such as this refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1985, inspired the AAFP's 2012 Family Physician of the year Richard Kovar, M.D., to get involved with providing safety-net care.

"He's a role model for me in the way he treats his patients," she adds. "I love that he makes the point to talk to everybody in their language, and he just puts people at ease right away."

Providing Asylum

Learning the languages of his patients is no easy task, by the way. Country Doctor serves patients that speak a variety of languages, from north African refugees to those from eastern Europe and around the Pacific Rim. It helps that Kovar is a world traveler.

Currently, though, the self-professed "hunger groupie" isn't traveling to war-ravaged countries to volunteer -- he has two teenagers to raise. But he's still offering a helping hand to those close to home with nowhere else to turn.

Kovar's most notable volunteer work is with people seeking political asylum, providing them with pro bono medical exams.

"The stats aren't great for being granted asylum, but they go up hugely if someone gets a medical evaluation or a psychological evaluation to support their claim," says Kovar. When he began, he was the only doctor in his region doing these evaluations, but he's since trained others to perform the exams.

Richard Kovar, M.D., meets with the locals in 1986 at a Loatian refugee camp. He has traveled to nine countries on five continents to provide health care outreach.

His specialty is evaluating people who have been tortured, and Kovar has seen the scars of those who have faced cultural harassment, been mutilated, attacked and even enslaved by police, mob organizations or their government.

"It's horrific, and it's very depressing. I choose to look at it as I'm giving this person a shot at due process. I'm proud of that piece," says Kovar.

In addition to juggling patient needs with his pro bono work, more often than not, Kovar also is mentoring a student or intern.

As a faculty member at the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine, he encourages his students to provide safety net care. Four of the current doctors at Country Doctor were trained by Kovar.

"I have patients that have gone on to medical school," Kovar says. "I can think of a number of them that have gone into family practice." And just like the man that encouraged them, "they will find a way to give back," Kovar says.