September 21, 2021, 3:30 p.m. — The AAFP Degree of Fellow, for members who are recognized as champions of family medicine, is typically conferred each year during the Family Medicine Experience or at constituent chapter meetings. However, COVID-19 forced last year’s FMX into a virtual format, and the Academy will hold its annual meeting online again Sept. 28-Oct. 2 due to the ongoing pandemic.
Thus, if the AAFP is able to confer fellows next year during an in-person FMX (scheduled for Sept. 20-24, 2022, in Washington, D.C.), there could be a super-sized convocation with a few hundred new fellows. Not only would it mark the first time members from across the nation gather in one place for an annual meeting in three years, 2022 would mark the 50th anniversary of the fellows program.
So what makes an AAFP Fellow?
Being a fellow signifies more than just experience. The Degree of Fellow recognizes AAFP members who have distinguished themselves among their colleagues and in their communities through service to our specialty, the advancement of health care, and professional development through medical education and research.
Two of our new physician bloggers — Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., of Phoenix; and Alex McDonald, M.D., of Fontana, Calif. — were among the fellows who were conferred at the last in-person FMX in 2019. Stewart Decker, M.D., of Klamath Falls, Ore., was conferred this year by his state chapter, and Tate Hinkle, M.D., of Alexander City, Ala., has met the criteria and is among the new fellows waiting to be conferred. We asked the four of them what the Degree of Fellow means to them. Here is what they shared.
I sometimes catch myself thinking about fellowship. Not about applying for or completing a fellowship, per say, but the fellowship of people. I would be lost without the fellowship of my friends and family. I cherish time spent with people who care deeply about the same things I do, and care about me similarly.
Reflecting on the fellowship of daily life led me to reflect on the AAFP’s Degree of Fellow, and I think that they are not so different. If fellowship is a group of people who care about each other and a given activity in equal measure, then the AAFP’s offering fits the bill.
I earned the Degree of Fellow almost by accident, spending my time simply doing the things I loved in medicine: teaching, community development, pursuing public health, working with my local chapter concerning climate change, and working with the national Academy on changing national health policy. I was delighted when I learned that the AAFP values those same pursuits as well.
What this means is that when I stood up to receive the Degree of Fellow, I was surrounded by people who cared about the same things I cared about, and oh, what a warm and fuzzy feeling it was.
Stewart Decker, M.D., Klamath Falls, Ore.
I was one of the lucky fellows who was conferred in 2019, before the pandemic. Life was different just two short years ago. At the AAFP FMX conference that year in Philadelphia, I carefully curated a schedule of CME sessions on chronic disease topics I could share learnings from with my colleagues back home. I happily connected with several other AAFP Fresh Perspectives bloggers, and we traded stories about work. During the Fellowship Convocation Breakfast, I ate in a swanky room with hundreds of people, which feels strangely foreign when reflecting on it today.
Professionally, I was focused on designing innovative quality/value programs and bringing leadership development to clinical teams. To me, the AAFP Degree of Fellow represented the diverse body of work I did in family medicine: leadership, academic research, mentoring students in an underserved settings, serving as faculty, editing journals and more.
When the COVID-19 pandemic rattled health care, everything I focused on changed. Our teams were in rapid-response mode — setting up testing sites, vaccinations and COVID care — while also balancing a slew of other issues our patients faced, including mental health, worsening chronic diseases and acute issues exacerbated by deferrals of primary care. The pandemic called for champions of family medicine to serve in many settings, from outpatient care to ICUs. Family physicians led public health messaging, developed organizational protocols, supported operations, and of course, provided high-quality and compassionate care.
Since the pandemic, the Degree of Fellow doesn’t just represent the work I do or actions I take as a family physician. It represents the values of family medicine that allow us to rise up and fight for our patients and communities.
Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., Phoenix
When I first became involved with the AAFP and was meeting many Academy leaders, I noticed they all had the letters FAAFP behind their names and degrees, and I began to wonder what those letters meant. Being an inquisitive person, I searched the AAFP website and found out about the Degree of Fellow program. As I read the page and application, I began to think that it would be hard to do all these things while also being a practicing doctor. So, how did these leaders achieve this distinction while also maintaining busy practices and lives outside of medicine?
As I progressed in my training and became more involved with the AAFP, I found that the Degree of Fellow program sought to recognize family physicians who serve as champions for family medicine by demonstrating a broad set of skills and service to their communities, their patients and the specialty.
I had the privilege of attending the Fellowship Convocation breakfast in 2014 while I was serving as the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors. When I saw all of the many things that the recipients had done for their communities and family medicine, I knew that I wanted to emulate their examples and work toward achieving this distinction. I was happy to have my work with my community and the specialty recognized in May of 2020 and looked forward to being awarded the Degree of Fellow. However, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any recognition ceremonies because they usually happen at national or state conferences. So, I have yet to formally be awarded my fellowship certificate. However, in my mind that does not change anything because the reason I started this path was to be an example of what family physicians should be as leaders in their communities.
Tate Hinkle, M.D., Alexander City, Ala.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at times — even insignificant — when you are a physician who cares deeply about issues like robust primary care, maintaining comprehensive family medicine scope of practice, educating the next generation of family doctors and health equity, because there are so many challenges facing both family physicians and our patients. However, by becoming involved with my state chapter and the AAFP, I have built numerous relationships and been part of the effort to move the needle on some of these critically important and complex health topics.
The Degree of Fellow has given me added credibility within my own organization and in work I do outside of the Academy. When others are aware that I put in the work to be distinguished as a fellow among family physicians, they better understand my dedication and commitment. That recognition has led to opportunities that may not have been offered otherwise.
I am incredibly proud to be a family physician, but I am perhaps even more proud to be a fellow of the AAFP.
Alex McDonald, M.D., Fontana, Calif.
Active, life or inactive members in good standing, may, upon application to the Academy, be elected to receive the Degree of Fellow upon fulfilling the following requirements: