June 27, 2022, 5:37 p.m. David Mitchell — One of the most fundamental lessons Tracey Conti, M.D., has learned wasn’t delivered in a classroom or clinic.
Conti learned a lot on her journey from Prairie View A&M University to the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, the family medicine residency at the University of Maryland and a handful of fellowships that followed.
However, Conti credits her mother, a seamstress, for providing the wisdom that ultimately launched her educational path. Specifically, it was an often-repeated geography lesson that her mother shared on their short walks from her job at a hospital laundry facility to the hospital’s cafeteria.
“The laundry was located across the street from the hospital, so when we would go over to the hospital, she would emphasize that she wanted me to have a job on that side of the street,” said Conti, chair and associate professor in the Family Medicine Department at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “‘This is the side you should be on; you don’t want to be on the other side of the street.’”
Conti’s mother grew up on a farm in South Carolina and often was pulled from school when extra labor was needed. She wanted more for her daughter.
“That was something she regretted,” Conti said. “She would say, ‘You have to get your education. That’s the most important thing. That’s the foundation for you to be whatever you want to be.’”
Conti knew early on that she wanted to be a doctor. Both of her parents worked, so she spent her summer breaks with two aunts who operated personal care homes in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. When she wasn’t delivering meals to residents or helping her aunts in some other way, young Tracey often was poring over her aunts’ medical books.
“I think it was the caring nature of it and being compassionate to people that drew me to health care,” she said.
Conti went to Temple with an interest in primary care and found herself immersed in the school’s family medicine interest group. Her specialty choice was cemented on the first day of her first away rotation at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Her mentor then, and again later during residency, was David Stewart, M.D., a Black family physician who is now chair of the Family Medicine Department at Maryland.
“He was a really good role model for me who embraces mentoring minority students,” said Conti, who also is Black. “It was an amazing experience. That first day, I remember seeing a hypertension patient because Dr. Stewart wanted to make sure that we knew bread-and-butter family medicine. The chair of the department came over and said, ‘There’s going to be a delivery. Let me take Tracey.’ So I went and saw the delivery and then came back to the office and saw pediatric patients. I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ You’re seeing the whole spectrum of patients and utilizing all these skills. It was exhilarating. No other rotation compared to that experience in family medicine.”
Conti returned to Maryland for residency, stayed on as chief resident and extended her stay yet again for fellowships in women’s health and faculty development.
An opportunity to work with another notable minority mentor brought her home to Pittsburgh.
Jeannette South-Paul, M.D., had served nearly two decades as faculty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., including a role as chair of the Department of Family Medicine, before retiring from the U.S. Army in 2001. South-Paul’s alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, convinced her to return as the first woman and first minority to serve as a permanent chair at the school.
South-Paul had encountered racism at the medical school and in its Oakland neighborhood during her time at Pitt in the 1970s and was eager to be an agent of change.
“I actually interviewed for my first faculty job at her house in Maryland,” Conti said. “I was her first hire at the University of Pittsburgh. She told me, ‘We are going to be in the community and improve the lives of the folks on the Hill.’ She knew the disparities there. She knew that was what I wanted to focus on and gave me an opportunity to do that.”
Conti said South-Paul, who retired from Pitt in 2020, set an excellent example as a mentor that she has tried to replicate.
“With residents, I tried to make sure they had the opportunities to really explore their passions and connect with the community,” she said. “Now, as a chair, I’m making sure faculty also have the ability to do that. It’s planting those seeds and letting them grow. It’s pretty exciting.”
During more than two decades at Pitt, Conti has served a variety of roles at the medical school and at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center McKeesport Family Medicine Residency, including the past 10 years as program director. After two years as vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine and one year as executive vice chair, Conti was named chair last fall. That promotion hastened the end of her career as program director. She’ll step aside before the new academic year begins.
Conti said it would be impossible to direct one program while also having oversight of the seven other family medicine programs affiliated with the school.
“My goal is to make sure that each of those residency programs has the support they need from the department to flourish,” she said. “You can’t do that if you’re overseeing one program and really be there for all eight.”
Conti recently completed her term as Board chair of the Pennsylvania AFP and now serves as her chapter’s alternate delegate to the AAFP’s Congress of Delegates. She also is a Board member of the Family Medicine Education Consortium and serves on a number of local and state committees.
She said it is vital for family physicians to have influence in their health systems and communities.
“We have to have that voice,” she said, “and it’s really important that the highest levels of leadership understand family medicine. That is how we change our health systems. I just finished a tour of all our residencies, and we serve a vast population. Our systems need to hear our voice about what’s happening on the ground, and family medicine can really bring that to the executive level.”
Decades after her education conversation with her mother, Conti is still learning. This year she completed a leadership fellowship through the Association of Departments of Family Medicine. She said she’s also still learning as a parent. She has seven children ages 13 to 26 with husband and emergency medicine physician, Christopher Conti, M.D.
“We have a big family,” she said, “but living family medicine is what we do.”