September 26, 2019 04:14 pm Jill Sederstrom –For Eduardo Gonzalez, M.D., practicing family medicine has always extended beyond the four walls of his Tampa, Fla., office.
Whether he is helping train a new generation of physicians, donating his time to deliver basic care services in the Dominican Republic or overseeing a student-run free clinic, Gonzalez's mission is always the same: to truly serve his patients through action.
"What's really important is doing something," Gonzalez said of one of his guiding life principles. "It's the actions that really are so important."
It's Gonzalez's actions throughout his more than 25-year career in medicine that have earned him the AAFP's 2020 Family Physician of the Year award -- a distinction that has left the veteran FP and tenured professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine humbled and a little overwhelmed.
"It is truly an honor to be recognized like this," he said.
Although Gonzalez is no stranger to professional honors -- he has twice been awarded the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award and has received the Sir William Osler Award for Outstanding Faculty Role Model from no fewer than 10 graduating classes at the USF medical college -- he prefers to stay out of the spotlight and instead is most comfortable alongside his patients.
"I get my recognition every single day when I take care of my patients," he said.
Eduardo Gonzalez, M.D., of Lakeland, Fla., has been named the AAFP's 2020 Family Physician of the Year.
The award recognizes a family physician who stands out among his or her colleagues for providing compassionate and comprehensive care, enhancing the quality of the community, and acting as a credible role model.
In addition to being considered a veritable family member by his patients, he's also a much-loved and well-respected teacher and medical missionary.
Gonzalez's commitment to service likely began while watching his father care for patients in the Key West, Fla., community where Gonzalez grew up after his family immigrated to the United States from Spain.
His father -- who has now retired -- worked in the emergency room at the small island's only public hospital.
"Looking at it now, he was responsible not only for those coming through the emergency room, but also once they were hospitalized, to a certain extent; if they didn't have a physician, he even would help assist surgeons and assist in deliveries," Gonzalez said.
He remembers that even as a small boy, any time there was an accident in the community, police officers would arrive at the family's door to enlist his father's help.
"There was that kind of recognition at the time about how important it was caring for others," Gonzalez said of his family.
Gonzalez credits watching his father take care of others with sparking his own interest in medicine -- especially after he found himself gravitating toward math and science in school.
"It just fell into place," he said of becoming a doctor. "I did think of other careers through school, but once I finished up high school, medicine was pretty much the focus."
Gonzalez, a self-described "Florida boy," attended the University of South Florida for his undergraduate degree in microbiology and continued at USF for medical school. Although he knew he one day wanted to become a physician, it wasn't until he ran into one of his mentors -- who just happened to be a family physician -- at a county hospital that he realized family medicine is about much more than just seeing patients in an office setting.
Gonzalez realized that if he were to become a pediatrician, he would be able to treat children, but he wouldn't be able to treat their parents or solve family issues on a more holistic level. If he focused on internal medicine with adult patients, he wouldn't be able to deliver babies or treat younger patients.
"It was clear to me that I could do something more," he said of his decision to become a family physician and practice full-scope, family-centered care.
After graduating from medical school in 1991, Gonzalez completed his residency at Bayfront Medical Center Family Medicine Residency in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Up to that point, Gonzalez had thought he would open his own small practice -- but his career took another turn after he was offered an opportunity to return to his alma mater and teach at the USF College of Medicine.
"I knew my enjoyment has always been caring for others, but teaching was also an interest of mine, so for whatever reason, that was placed in my path," he said. "When I started, I was able to work with some great mentors in family medicine at the University of South Florida who guided me and assisted me and really made it quite easy to stay here and enjoy my practice."
He's been at the university ever since, teaching the next generation of physicians and caring for patients.
During the more than two decades he's worked at the university, he's made an indelible mark on the surrounding community. He was recently recognized for having the highest Press-Ganey patient satisfaction scores in the entire USF Health practice plan, which includes more than 400 physicians. His score was greater than the 99th percentile.
"Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez is the best physician I have ever had," said one patient. "He has a wonderful attitude, (is) personable and takes time to go over any questions. (He) always shows concern and provides good information."
Another said it felt "like he's a member of my family."
Richard Roetzheim, M.D., M.S.P.H., professor and chair of the USF Department of Family Medicine, has worked with Gonzalez for more than thirty years and called him "one of the most skilled clinicians" he's ever known.
But what makes Gonzalez truly unique, said Roetzheim, is his ability to meld technical skill and clinical acumen with a caring and empathetic approach to patient care.
"Dr. Gonzalez is a family physician in the sense that he cares for his patients as if they were members of his own family," he wrote in his nominating letter. "He treats his patients with the familiarity of family, knowing his patients' hopes, their dreams, their fears, their weaknesses. He is there for his patients physically, emotionally and, at times, spiritually, comforting them and caring for them as you would your own family."
Gonzalez himself described his patient care philosophy as focusing first and foremost on relationships.
"After 25 years, it's become more and more clear to me that in caring for others and even in just personal life, everything that tends to drive us, everything that has an effect on us -- either negative or positive -- is all about our relationships, and I think that's so key and important," he said. "It isn't the disease, it isn't the diagnosis, it's not the problem, but it's the relationship that you have with someone that will really dictate how things will proceed."
That's also the message he tries to impart to his students each day.
"You can't go into something just by jumping to the problem," he said. "You've got to know the person and know everything about them." It's a message that has helped make him a well-loved and highly respected teacher -- and not just in his students' eyes.
"Dr. Gonzalez has had a remarkable impact on our profession," Roetzheim said. "Through his role-modeling and advising he has encouraged a generation of physicians to pursue family medicine specialty training."
Gonzalez has also been instrumental in creating and leading the university's student-run free clinic, known as the BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic,(health.usf.edu) where he serves as medical co-director.
The clinic serves the community's uninsured and operates as an interdisciplinary facility that offers real-world opportunities for student physicians, pharmacists, social workers and physical therapists. It currently provides more than 1,000 visits a year for patients in need.
"We've had wonderful outcomes. We've been able to show very high rates of colon cancer screening, cervical cancer screening and breast cancer screening," Gonzalez said. "Our students have been very successful in not only presenting their success and what they've been able to do but also publishing, and we continue expanding and doing as much as we can."
He also is the faculty adviser for Project World Health, a student-led organization at the school that is committed to completing medical missions in the Dominican Republic. Last year, the trip included more than 100 volunteers, at least 50 of whom were medical students.
"It's just a wonderful thing because you can practice in a city hospital and you can even practice in a city clinic, but sometimes you just don't realize how much you can do with so little, especially when you can't order an X-ray or a CT scan or even labs," said Gonzalez.
Many of the students who've gone on the trip, he said, have gone on to start similar endeavors of their own -- visiting other countries with populations in need or taking positions with free clinics in the United States.
"It's just grown into something quite wonderful," he said.
It's clear that during his lengthy career, Gonzalez has made a significant impact on the community, the university, incoming physicians and -- most importantly -- the patients he's been able to serve. But when it comes to discussing his own accomplishments, Gonzalez is quick to turn the attention back to others, preferring to stay out of the spotlight.
"All the things I think I have ever been able to accomplish haven't been because of anything I did, but because of other people who have been placed in front of me and guided me in some way," he said.
As for downtime, when he isn't at work, he's often spending time with his wife -- a practicing OB/Gyn in Orlando -- who he calls his "best friend," as well as his two grown sons.
He's also often not far from water, whether it's the Florida lakes near his home in Lakeland or the nearby ocean.
"I enjoy fishing," he said. "But you know, there's two things about fishing -- there's fishing, and there's catching.
"I am not too good at the catching, but I enjoy the fishing."