Pedro Alvarez was 12 when his family came to the United States from Mexico. As a young boy, he learned English in his family's new home. At the same time, he took on the job of translator during his father's medical appointments. The role gave Alvarez, now a fourth-year-medical student at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, exposure to the U.S. health care system and a deep appreciation of primary care.
Alvarez recently spoke with AAFP News about why he plans to go into family medicine.
Q: You chose family medicine because you want to give back to your community. How does family medicine allow you to do that better than other specialties?
A: A very important part of family medicine is preventive care. Latino communities are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases like diabetes and their downstream complications (e.g. heart attacks, strokes, amputations, etc.). While I'm thankful for specialists being able to take care of such complications, I believe preventive care has the biggest impact on people. Why worry about a heart attack if it never happened? As a family physician, I would be able to take preventive care of communities like the ones I grew up in while addressing these issues before they escalate. This approach is important in underserved communities that otherwise may go without care due to structural barriers.
Q: How did the health of your family expose you to health care -- family medicine in particular -- and how did that influence your specialty choice?
A: I have multiple family members who have suffered from medical conditions, and that taught me the value of primary care. My uncle has diabetes. Fortunately, he has not had many problems from it, and a big part of that is his family physician. By having a good relationship with his physician, he has been able to adopt good lifestyle modifications and manage his diabetes with medications.
My dad had a debilitating back injury shortly after we got to the States. I was 13. That brought us into the health care world. Since I was the one learning English, I would go to his appointments and translate. Navigating the health care system can be difficult even for an English-speaking adult patient. Fortunately, we had a trusted primary care physician coordinating my dad's care, referring us to the right subspecialists, physical therapists, etc. Otherwise, it would have been a very difficult thing for us to go through. Family physicians are the first point of contact in the health care system.
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It was a similar thing when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a good family physician who she trusted in the community. She was able to bring up her concerns, get evaluated and get treatment very early on. This would have been a different story if a family medicine doctor weren't present -- she could have presented to the ER with metastasis. My sister is a working single mom with two daughters, and today she is healthy.
Q: You can do a lot with family medicine -- sports medicine, geriatrics, research, teaching, maternity care, etc. -- what kind of practice do you see yourself in? What will you do in family medicine?
A: Given my history, the community I came from and the reasons I went into medicine, in 10 years I see myself practicing in a federally qualified health center or a similar setting, serving uninsured, underserved and undocumented patients and helping them get the care they need.
Q: What do you wish more medical students understood about family medicine?
A: There's so much I wish people knew about family medicine. If you are the type of person who loves everything in medicine -- OB, geriatrics, pediatrics, psychiatry, etc. -- you can do all these with family medicine. In family medicine, you aren't just a doctor but a valuable member of the community because you can take your skills to them. You provide a lot to your community by treating and preventing chronic disease. The wave of the future is primary care and prevention. I think it has the greatest impact on morbidity and mortality, and it has the highest value of care that can be provided. You should join us.
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