2015 FPOY Mixes Full-scope Family Medicine With Healthy Dose of Advocacy

October 23, 2014 09:32 am Jessica Pupillo

2015 Family Physician of the Year Oscar Lovelace, M.D., poses with three generations of this family of his patients. They are, from left, Damia Wadsworth, her mother Shameka Gallman and her grandmother Michelle Gallman.

It doesn't matter if he's delivering a baby, consulting with members of a family who are about to lose a loved one, or squeezing in just one more patient at the end of the day, Oscar Lovelace, M.D., has a reputation for providing compassionate care and ensuring all of his patients feel like they are each his No. 1 priority.

It's not an easy task, considering Lovelace Family Medicine -- a practice he started in 1988 in Prosperity, S.C. -- provides comprehensive care for all of Newberry County, a medically underserved area with more than 37,000 residents. He also serves as associate medical director for two hospices, is on staff at Newberry County Memorial Hospital, is an assistant professor at three medical schools and is politically active.

"He treats you like you are the only patient he ever has; that's just priceless," said Suzanne Summer, R.N., who works with Lovelace at Blue Ridge Hospice and is also a patient. "He epitomizes everything a community would want for their physician."

Lovelace is the recipient of the 2015 AAFP Family Physician of the Year (FPOY) award, which honors one outstanding American family physician who provides patients with compassionate and comprehensive care and who serves as a role model -- both professionally and personally -- in his or her community, to other health professionals, and to residents and medical students.

Story highlights
  • Oscar Lovelace, M.D., of Prosperity, S.C., has been named the Academy's 2015 Family Physician of the Year.
  • In addition to practicing full-scope family medicine, including obstetrics, Lovelace has involved himself in numerous health issues in his home state.
  • A huge tobacco-cessation advocate, Lovelace has now set another public health issue in his sights: obesity.

Lovelace's practice career started in 1988. Having completed his residency in family medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, he returned to Prosperity, where the Columbia native spent summers working on his uncle's and grandfather's farm, and where he says he fell in love with rural people.

The day Lovelace signed a loan on his medical building, one of only two OB/Gyns in the county left his practice. The second died a year later. "I delivered 220 babies, including our fourth child, during my second year in practice," Lovelace recalled.

Although for many family physicians, filling this critical need for obstetrical care throughout the county would serve as challenge enough, Lovelace wanted to do more. The state's infant mortality rate was the second-highest in the nation. Many expectant moms received prenatal care at the county health department, meeting with a physician only to deliver. Despite having been trained to perform cesarean deliveries, Lovelace was not allowed to do so, with women relying instead on a general surgeon.

So he did what he's since done so often throughout his career -- he worked to make changes that could improve the health of his entire community.

With the support of local OB/Gyns and a white paper agreement between the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the AAFP saying family physicians were perfectly capable of practicing operative obstetrics in underserved communities, Lovelace petitioned the hospital board to allow him and other family physicians to perform c-sections after completion of a mini obstetrical fellowship. The hospital agreed, and Lovelace and three other family physicians quickly underwent training. Around that same time, the state's Medicaid program increased reimbursement rates for deliveries, making it possible for family physicians to also provide prenatal care for these woman.

Gladys Picklesimer shares a hug with 2015 FPOY Oscar Lovelace, M.D. Picklesimer has been Lovelace's patient for more than two decades.

From 1992 to 1997, when only family physicians were delivering babies in Newberry County, minority infant mortality plummeted by 68 percent. "No other family practitioner in South Carolina has provided such a high level of obstetrical care for their community," said Mark Salley, M.D., one of the OB/Gyns who trained Lovelace, in a letter of nomination for the FPOY honor.

"Oscar has absolutely been a stellar disciple of what it really means to be a doctor," said O. Marion Burton, M.D., a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Burton describes his friend and colleague as an early adopter of the medical home and care management practices, along with population health management.

In the early '90s, Lovelace helped develop a pilot project to reduce the state's Medicaid costs through a Physicians Enhanced Program. Physicians, including Lovelace, accepted capitated payments to provide patients with a medical home and round-the-clock medical care. In 1996, the pilot's first year, 1,100 Medicaid patients were enrolled, and the program saved the state $1 million.

Lovelace has also worked in collaboration with community members to improve access to care by establishing Living Water Foundation, said Marcia Ballentine, of West Columbia, who is founding chairwoman of the foundation. "We decided that the thing we needed most right then was an avenue to make prescription drugs available to people who could not afford them," she told AAFP News. The foundation, which launched in December 1999, eventually expanded to help residents achieve a better quality of life through several initiatives, including a smoking-cessation program that rewarded expectant teens who quit smoking with a bassinet.

Lovelace ran for governor of South Carolina in 2006 because he didn't see public health improvements happening quickly enough in his home state.

"Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances we have to wrestle with as doctors," Lovelace said. "Ninety percent of people dealing with the ill effects of addiction started smoking as a teen."

An avid participant in the AAFP's Tar Wars tobacco-free education program, Lovelace has also championed tobacco prevention statewide.

He's a past president of the South Carolina Tobacco-Free Collaborative, an organization that has lobbied for an increase in the cigarette tax. Although a tax increase has twice been approved by legislators, each time, Gov. Mark Sanford has vetoed the bills.

"It was after we unsuccessfully worked for seven years that I decided to run against the governor that I helped to elect," Lovelace said. He ran in the 2006 Republican primary with the goal of improving health care and education on a state level. He garnered 35 percent of the vote against the incumbent while only taking 30 days off from his practice. Four years later, his 50-cent cigarette tax increase was finally approved by the legislature, which overrode Sanford's veto. And today Lovelace is vice chairman of The American Party of South Carolina, a new political party that values term limits, public service, problem-solving and transparency.

"He does not take no for an answer; he does not take a brick wall for an answer," said Burton. "He says, 'I'm going to get around this and solve this problem.' I absolutely admire him."

Currently, Lovelace is tackling another public health crisis: obesity. He's providing group behavioral counseling for obese patients and says the 30 or so participants who have stuck with the program for a year have lost an average of 26 pounds, Lovelace said.

But even though he's involved in numerous activities, he never closes his door on people. "Recently, someone needed to come in his office, and he probably could have put the patient off," Burton said. "Oscar was busy, it was 5 or 6 in the afternoon, but he said, 'Come on in.'

"When his patients need his services, he's going to provide them if he possibly can."