As a physician, you already contribute plenty to the welfare of your community. Still, there are ways to do even more, while also strengthening your own business.
Every October, to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness month, the staff at A Woman’s Place, an OB/GYN practice in Fayetteville, N.C., hands out pink ribbon-pins. Also, any staff member who wears pink during that time makes a small monetary contribution to the cause. The two-physician practice also donates money to the March of Dimes and participates in its annual T-shirt design contest and downtown walk.
These activities are all part of A Woman’s Place’s belief that participating in charitable outreach is good for both the practice and the recipients. “We try to do it so that everybody can participate and be involved,” says OB/GYN Lakshmi Gordon.
Gordon says she’s noticed that many physicians and medical students cite a strong desire for community advocacy as a driving reason for choosing medicine as a career. And there is certainly plenty of need.
Yet physicians are among the most pressured and busiest of professionals. How can you balance the needs of your community with your need to have a life - and your patients’ need to have a doctor who has time for them? Is it worthwhile to participate in charitable activities? Is it even possible to find the time?
Why do it?
“Philosophically, it’s important to me to give back to the community,” says orthopedic surgeon Jeffrey Greenspoon of Melbourne, Fla. “You’ll receive blessings as well - a Judeo-Christian value. We need to do it more often.”
Greenspoon sees community service as a personal requirement of his Jewish faith, but also as an implicit responsibility for anyone who chooses a medical career. “Physicians are unique in that we are indeed high- profile role models,” he says. “We have significant opportunities to influence youngsters with career choices. There’s increased need with our aging populations. It behooves us to get involved.”
Charitable outreach can also be good for you, not just good of you. It can be a great way to drum up new patients by increasing your visibility with the public and developing positive relationships with employers, schools, and social service organizations that can sometimes be referral sources. And count on a difference in your office environment - warmer, less divisive, more team-oriented.
Gordon advocates preventive medicine, taking her role as public caretaker seriously. “I think that especially the way healthcare is now, there are a lot of people that don’t even have health insurance or access to medical care,” she says. “It’s important for us to get out in the community and talk with them about preventive medicine: breast exams, get your blood pressure check, stop smoking. By giving lectures and getting out to these people, hopefully they’ll tell 10 other people.”
What to do?
You don’t have to look far to find a group that needs help. The answer walks through your door dozens of times a day - your patients. Consider these possible ways to reach out:
Hold a themed conference or health fair. Every year, A Woman’s Place holds a conference on women’s health. Organized by Gordon and her associate, OB/GYN Karen Dickerson, the day-long conference is free for patients. Two hundred-plus people pack the office space for all things female: self-defense and acupuncture demonstrations; speakers on breast cancer awareness, heart disease prevention; relaxation techniques; and information on fitness, nutrition, cosmetic surgery, and mental health.
Participants receive breakfast and lunch, prizes, gifts, drawings, T-shirts, and the natural camaraderie that always arises from woman-to-woman interactions. All is so well-received and so well-attended there is no need to advertise, says Gordon.
To hold your own conference, simply tailor the subjects to your specialty. Family practice? Perhaps exercising as a family, effective communication skills, or dealing with those two especially difficult but strangely similar age groups - toddlers and teenagers.
Get on the phone and call appropriate vendors. You’ll find them very willing to donate brochures and other informational materials to support your conference. Many will even supply little imprinted trinkets - magnets, pens, stress balls, and such - if you just ask. Garner support from your neighborhood: A friendly firefighter could talk about burns and fire safety; a police officer, tips on personal safety.
Provide shadow opportunities to high school students. If you know a teen-ager with an interest in medicine, give him an inside look by letting him follow you around for a few hours. (You’ll obviously need to get patients’ permission, and use your own discretion before letting any visitor into an exam room.) Greenspoon welcomes them. “If they express interest, they can shadow, ask questions, and spend time in surgery,” he says. Certainly, says Greenspoon, this is time well spent. “If you can take a 17- or 18-year-old and expose them to what orthopedics is like, then they’ll know.”
Take shadowing to the next level by sponsoring internships at your practice. Both Greenspoon Orthopaedics and A Woman’s Place advocate this more formalized education outreach to college students who are enrolled in a definitive program, such as physical therapy. “To some extent they will function with oversight in the office,” says Greenspoon.
Give lectures to community groups. One of the most rewarding aspects of speaking to community groups is that the audience is self-selected. They’re in attendance because they’re genuinely interested, and there’s nothing like teaching people who are actually listening. “I did one on infertility - a radiologist asked,” says Gordon. Dickerson has spoken similarly through her church.
Become a spokesperson for an advocacy organization. The Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) brings physicians and laypeople together to promote preventive medicine programs and effective-but-humane standards for research. Clinical research physician Neal Barnard founded PCRM in 1985 as a think tank to look at alternative therapies for treating diet-affected conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Current membership stands at 6,000 physicians and 100,000 laypeople. Why do physicians join? “Because they believe fighting disease with a healthy diet makes sense,” says media relations manager Jeanne McVey. “They’ll be connected with like-minded doctors.”
You can volunteer your time to be a spokesperson for PCRM-backed campaigns. Or if not this group, then another organization that matches your passions.
Your staff is another mini-demographic where you can invest your time performing community service: either for their direct benefit, as with your patients, or in collaboration with them:
Offer in-house lectures on useful subjects. Medical practices get so busy that small knowledge gaps often form and go unnoticed. Put an ear to the floor for what your staff may not know. Gordon has spoken on medical terminology and interpreting abnormal labs, for example. Taking time out to educate your staff pays off in the long run by allowing them to perform their jobs with increased accuracy as well as a greater awareness of the importance of that work.
Take on a cause as a group. Enlist your entire staff to support a charitable organization. This doesn’t have to be a complicated or drawn-out affair. For example, have your staff “pay for a privilege,” such as wearing jeans to work, and donate the collected money to the organization.
A Woman’s Place does variations of this for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the American Heart Association. It also spearheads various local outreach events, including a fundraiser to benefit Cumberland County, such as practice employees paying to experience a traditional Indian dinner in costume; a show that was put on by a breast cancer survivor, with the group paying for tickets for any interested patient or staff member; and a Latin-themed dinner complete with dancers to raise money for disadvantaged students. “The employees really enjoy doing the walks and the dinners,” says Gordon.
Embrace causes that make sense for your practice. Greenspoon Orthopaedics regularly sponsors and even participates in local races, for example. And there’s a commemorative week or month for just about every disease state and wellness issue under the sun; find one relevant to your practice and get involved.
Support your surrounding medical community, particularly those in allied healthcare. With the unrelenting tidal waves of knowledge flooding the healthcare world, no one can learn everything; hence, specialty medicine. As the years pass, you absorb “insider” information gained only through practical experience. Share this for the greater good with your associates - nurses, physical therapists, etc. - on a scale that makes you comfortable, such as:
De Freitas stresses the teamwork aspect of doing this, as it relates to patients recovering faster. “When you treat a physician’s patients and you know where he’s coming from, you can help them more quickly. He’s brilliant and accessible, and accessibility is key.”
De Freitas attended Greenspoon’s 2004 Shoulder Series Symposium, where she said she learned a great deal that will directly help her with her own work. She also appreciates the overarching benefits of these free conferences: “I think that it enables us to, first of all, educate the patients, and educate us personally, so we can provide the best care.” She is amazed at how Greenspoon devotes his time to organizing and running the symposium. “Physicians are extremely busy. For a physician to give up his time to do this for three hours in an evening is highly unusual.”
Prior planning prevents …
Do you have time for community service? Yes. “It really doesn’t take more time. You know what they say: ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person,’” says Greenspoon. Still, it’s beneficial to have certain facilities in place to ensure success. Both Greenspoon and Gordon recommend making sure your office is a lean, mean practice-management machine. Get up and running with an EMR, if you’re not yet. Don’t procrastinate on administrative tasks. And set aside community service planning time - Gordon works on her lectures during lunch, and schedules fewer patients on Thursdays - so you’re not squeezing it in on the fly. Failure to prioritize and stay organized will hamper both your practice’s inner workings and your ability to reach out to the community.
Also, make your charitable giving goal real by including it in your annual budget. “It’s important to set a budget as to how much you’re going to allocate to that every year,” says Gordon. And be aware that while word getting out that your practice is community-oriented is good, this reputation does have its risks. “A lot of people want us to give to a lot of things,” she says. Know what your financial limit is, and stay within that.
Feel motivated but overwhelmed by the choices? Start small. Align your practice’s particular talents and interests with your mission statement. (You do have a mission statement, right?) Assess your community’s needs and its resources. Why reinvent the service wheel when an organization right down the street already has it rolling? Form a partnership instead.
But just do it, says Greenspoon, “Practice efficiently. Don’t have tunnel vision about healthcare. Work with students. Pique people’s interest. Be a role model. All this charitable giving should be going without saying.”
Shirley Grace, senior writer for Physicians Practice, holds an MA in nonfiction writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post and Notre Dame Business magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Physicians Practice.