• Family Medicine Has Risen to Challenge of COVID-19

    We have all been startled awake in the middle of night by a sound that goes “bump” in the darkness. This was the year that went “bump” in all of our lives. In the forced silence of social distancing, our society struggled to survive an all too real virtual reality.

    Drive-through COVID-19 test

    A year ago, in Philadelphia – where revolutionary ideas gave birth to our nation – I took the stage at FMX, to share my agenda for my term as AAFP president. First and foremost, I desired to be a leader who helped you help others. As a trusted social advocate for our nation’s health, the AAFP must consistently be the calming voice of reason in an unrelenting hurricane of noise.

    During my speech, I mentioned that there is a time and place for everyday heroes – like you. Well, 2020 needed all of us to shed our secret identities as ordinary medical professionals to become the heroes that come to our nation’s rescue. Real heroes provide more than just statements and soundbites to the conversation. We are the trusted, thoughtful influencers who provide solutions and results whenever and wherever needed.

    The AAFP and its membership accomplished the unimaginable. We entered the third decade of the 21st century with great hope, realizing that bold challenges lay ahead. Let’s pause here to take inventory of a few of our highlights:

    After celebrating the 50th anniversary of family medicine being recognized as a specialty in 2019, the Academy began 2020 with updated strategic objectives:

    • Reduce administrative complexity.
    • Grow a diverse family physician workforce.
    • Support and sustain comprehensive family medicine practices.
    • Equip our members with the clinical expertise to improve individual and population health.

    After 20 years of dedicated service to the AAFP, Douglas Henley, M.D., announced his intention to retire as EVP/CEO. For the first time in a generation, we had a national search for a new EVP. After a six-month process, the field of candidates was narrowed down to a talented and diverse field of finalists. We were delighted to appoint Shawn Martin as our new EVP/CEO effective Aug. 1. Congratulations, Shawn. I look forward to working with you during my term as AAFP Board Chair.

    We ended 2019 advocating for rural health care expansion, firearm safety and teaching health center legislation, and the AAFP participated in a White House summit on restricting the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products to individuals over the age of 21. In the midst of these foreseeable challenges, COVID-19 officially reached the shores of the United States in January 2020. It soon became the first major pandemic of the 21st century. The AAFP took its first bold steps on Jan. 24 to alert, educate and prepare our members for the arrival of the pandemic in their communities.

    These are just a few examples of the many benefits of AAFP membership during this crisis.

    The nation took notice of what the AAFP and its members were proactively doing. Family physicians quickly adapted to telemedicine and took on new roles in places including ERs, ICUs and COVID-19 testing sites as needed in their communities. In an effort to educate communities about the pandemic, our nation looked to the specialty of family medicine to lend its trusted voice to the media’s conversation. To date, I have participated in nearly 90 interviews about COVID-19 with major media outlets.

    On May 25, another major crisis occurred within the crisis. The festering wound of racism was reignited in the streets of Minneapolis by the tragic death of George Floyd. On May 31, the AAFP issued a statement declaring racism a public health crisis that must be vanquished. We did not stop with just a statement of the obvious. Through our Office of Diversity and Health Equity, we hosted a virtual town hall on racism. We also ramped up member awareness about the AAFP’s EveryONE Project and implicit bias toolkits. Our implicit bias training sessions for chapters have continued to grow in attendance, and we are developing a series of educational videos on major chronic diseases that disproportionately affect minority populations.

    Our membership continues to grow, with 136,700 members. I am proud to report that for the 14th year in a row we remain the most sought-after specialty by potential employers. Now more than ever, they recognize our value.

    Speaking of value, after nearly a decade of persistent advocacy efforts and small steps in the appropriate direction, the specialty of family medicine will officially take a giant leap forward on Jan. 1. CMS has authorized a 13% increase for primary care evaluation and management code reimbursements. This is huge! The AAFP has already begun publishing practice management materials to educate our members about how to receive the appropriate payment for their services.

    Another major achievement was the launch of our beautiful new website in August. It is more user friendly, intuitive and powerful, and has a mobile app.

    This is a lot, but we can’t stop here. I wish I had the time to tell you more about all of the amazing accomplishments the AAFP achieved on behalf of our members during these unprecedented times. Unlike past AAFP presidents, I went everywhere “virtually” during most of my term. I had to learn how to meet our members where they were through the use of old and new technologies:

    • weekly tweets to tell you what your president had been up to,
    • personal phone calls to members with concerns,
    • emails,
    • virtual chapter officer installations and
    • participation in webinars.

    I also sent personal, handwritten note cards to nearly 500 randomly selected AAFP members who had communicated with the organization by phone, social media or in writing. Each week 10 members were selected to receive a notecard from me. I found it to be an effective way to know what our members are thinking about in real time each week.

    Family physicians provide our nation with roughly 193 million office visits each year. This is a tremendous value to a nation in desperate need of a way to provide equal access to health care to everyone – not just to those who can afford it. There are still far too many within our borders who, out of last-minute desperation, seek health care interventions when death is too near to be avoided. As the richest and most technologically advanced nation in history, we can and must do better.

    Family physicians are the ones who identify these challenging health care problems early in the process, offer a path to improvement and are the most trusted direct line of communication back to the patients we serve. This is our uniquely irreplaceable value to our nation. As AAFP leaders, it is our duty to use a similar sequence of steps to serve the needs of our members. We must actively listen to our members to identify the unnecessary administrative obstacles impeding professional wellbeing. We must also offer evidence-based solutions to challenging problems and maintain trusted lines of communication between the AAFP and our membership.

    So, I will conclude with some breaking news: The specialty of family medicine is not going away. The haunting bumps in the lives of all Americans have revealed or confirmed the value of a physician who is the patient’s trusted first contact for care, provides a reliable source of comprehensive and continuous health care, and has the knowledge necessary to effectively coordinate the patient’s health needs between each doctor-patient encounter.

    Change is a reliable constant in life. The best evidence of leadership is with those who have been tested, not during ordinary times, but during extraordinary times of crisis. With the unflinching support of our AAFP membership, our chapter leaders, our amazing staff, your Board of Directors and the communities we serve, we have weathered the initial impact the year 2020 has brought into our lives. We must now use the lessons learned to emerge as an even stronger specialty with an innate ability to use our 20/20 vision to see opportunities awaiting us in the near future.

    I am ending my year as your president, but let me assure you that I am not going away. As your Board Chair, I will be working closely with President Ada Stewart, M.D., our talented Board of Directors, Shawn Martin and the entire AAFP staff to continue my service to our members with passion and intent.

    I will simply conclude with the words I shared with our Congress of Delegates in New Orleans at the conclusion of my acceptance speech as your newly installed president-elect in 2018: “Change is like an ever-present life partner who I despise when it takes me from my comfort zone, but love when it reveals my potential to become a better person.”

    I sincerely wish we could have been in Chicago together to joyfully share handshakes and hugs this week at the Congress of Delegates and FMX. In an era of social distance, I value human embraces now more than ever. Thank you for this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve you as your president. The experience removed me far from my comfort zone, but I am blessed to have become a better person now because of the journey and the trust you placed in me. Thank you for being the superheroes the world needs now more than ever.

    Gary LeRoy, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.


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