• NCCL Convener Eager to 'Elevate and Inspire' Other Family Docs

    March 27, 2024, David Mitchell — April is going to be a busy month for Alex McDonald, M.D., CAQSM, FAAFP, but that’s OK. The former professional triathlete is used to racing from place to place.

    “I feel like the extra projects that I do can help propel family medicine forward,” said McDonald, a family physician for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Fontana, Calif. “But that work also adds to my own professional fulfillment. It is more work, but it doesn’t feel like work.”

    Between his leadership roles with AAFP, California AFP and the California Medical Association, McDonald will spend 17 days on the road in April. He’ll be in Sacramento April 13-14 for his state chapter’s annual All Member Advocacy Meeting. AAFP Board chair Tochi Iroku-Malize, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., FAAFP, also will be on hand to install McDonald as the chapter’s new president.

    “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I’m excited about that. I’ve known Tochi since I was a resident alternate delegate to the Congress of Delegates. She’s provided a lot of guidance and insights over the years.”

    McDonald’s first foray into national leadership happened almost by chance. When a California delegate to the AAFP’s National Congress of Family Medicine Residents couldn’t travel to Kansas City, Mo., in 2015, McDonald made the trip instead.

    “On a whim I said, ‘Sure I’ll do it,’ without really knowing what I was getting myself into,” he said. “That experience inspired me to get more involved with AAFP.”

    During that resident congress, McDonald was elected to serve as resident alternate delegate to the Congress of Delegates. Since then, he has served the Academy as resident delegate to the COD; resident chair of the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students; new physician alternate delegate and delegate to the COD; delegate to the AMA’s Young Physicians Section; and chair of the Commission on Membership and Member Services.

    In Kansas City, Mo., April 18-20, McDonald will serve as convener of the National Conference of Constituency Leaders, which is the AAFP’s leadership development event for women, minorities, new physicians, international medical graduates, and LGBTQ+ physicians or physician allies.

    “NCCL really feels like my family and home,” McDonald said. “When I was finishing my training, I wanted to stay involved, and at NCCL I found a wonderful group of like-minded individuals who were inspiring and encouraging in my leadership journey. I’ve attended NCCL for years, and I wanted to give back. This felt like a logical step for me.”

    NCCL coincides with the AAFP’s Annual Chapter Leader Forum, which is a developmental program for chapter-elected leaders, aspiring leaders and chapter staff.

    “I want people to feel invited, connected and engaged with the Academy, and not just where family medicine is but where family medicine is going,” McDonald said. “This conference draws many of the specialty’s future leaders. We want to help elevate their voices and inspire them. NCCL is like a burnout prevention tool because you get reignited and reconnected with why you’re in family medicine and why it’s important. I’ve stayed connected with the people I’ve met there. Even when you’re not at NCCL, you can reach out to people who can help provide guidance and insight and help keep you personally and professionally fulfilled. It’s been that way for me, and I hope it can be that way for others, too.”

    In addition to his leadership roles in family medicine, McDonald has been a young physician trustee for the California Medical Association since 2021. Last summer, the father of three branched out beyond leadership in health care when he was elected to his local school board.

    “The fundamental building block of good health is education,” he said. “We know that folks who have a higher education are more likely to attain a higher socioeconomic status and are more likely to have better access to care,” he said. “For me, running for the school board was about making sure we can promote physical and mental health and education to help make our communities healthier.”

    McDonald said he’s been able to bring a health perspective to the school board as well as to meetings with school administrators.

    “Education, like health care, is complex,” he said. “Something as simple as improving school lunches — an idea that everyone should be able to get behind — is difficult because of the layers of bureaucracy. In health care, we talk about taking care of the patient in front of you but also looking at the systems around that person and making changes to prevent the same issues from happening again. I think that same kind of perspective can be applied to education.”

    McDonald sought advice during his campaign from family physicians Ravi Shah, M.D., FAAFP, and Jennifer Bacani McKenney, M.D., FAAFP, who have served on school boards in Arizona and Kansas, respectively. It will be McDonald’s turn to pass on what he’s learned about running for office and serving when he’s a speaker at the Family Medicine Advocacy Summit, May 19-21, in Washington, D.C.

    McDonald experienced imposter syndrome during his first meeting with legislators as a third-year resident, but he said that feeling dissipated when he realized he knew more about health care than politicians.

    “Having had the experience of taking care of patients made me qualified to share my perspectives,” he said. “That’s what I’d like people to get out of this: You don’t have to understand MIPS, APMs, QPP or any of the jargon or acronyms from complicated health policies. If you understand what it’s like to take care of a patient, and you can share that story, that’s far more valuable and impactful than anything else. Anyone from medical students to a seasoned physician can lend their perspectives to help educate our elected officials.”

    McDonald also is working to educate students and residents as an assistant clinical professor at the Bernard J Tyson Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena and as a core faculty member at Kaiser Permanente’s Family Medicine Residency in Fontana.

    “I love teaching the next generation and sharing my perspective with them,” he said. “Watching them grow is really inspiring.”

    McDonald, who works with sports teams at California State University, San Bernardino, and local high schools, is a sports medicine clerkship director. He can relate to athletes because he was a diver and water polo goalie at Connecticut College and was a professional triathlete for four years between medical school and residency.

    “That experience helps me deal with very motivated individuals who are dealing with musculoskeletal injuries,” he said. “I’m able to empathize with their situations, and that helps build trust and relationships. I understand patients’ frustrations navigating the health system and dealing with the psychological impacts of illness and injury. I can help create an environment where they feel heard and valued as a part of the care team.”

    McDonald has been on the other side of difficult doctor-patient conversations. In 2011, he was hit by a truck during a training ride and suffered two broken legs.

    “Sometimes when I’m having trouble connecting with a patient, I’ll let them know that, ‘Hey, I understand that you’re frustrated because this happened to me,’” he said. “I don’t say it to minimize what they’re going through. I say it to help them understand that I know what they’re going through.”