2016 Country Doctor of the Year Built Rural Care Network

Megan Brooks

March 25, 2016

Family physician Jasmine Sulaiman, MD, who started a health clinic in an old flower shop in rural Cleveland, Texas, and now supervises four clinics providing much-needed services to a largely uninsured population, is the 2016 Country Doctor of the Year.

Staff Care, a physician recruiting agency, has presented the Country Doctor of the Year award since 1992 to exemplary physicians practicing in communities of 30,000 or less.

"Dr Sulaiman represents a new breed of country doctor," Sean Ebner, president of Staff Care, said in a news release. "She combines the compassion and commitment of old school physicians with the information technology and new practice paradigms of today's doctors."

Sole Safety Net

Cleveland, Texas, is a small town with a population of about 7700, located 45 miles from Houston. It is a far cry from where Dr Sulaiman, 54, came from: St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Utica, New York. With a population topping 62,000, Utica is the tenth most populous city in New York. What brought her to Texas? "I just followed my husband, who wanted to relocate to a warmer place," she told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Jasmine Sulaiman. Image courtesy of Dr Sulaiman

When Dr Sulaiman arrived in Cleveland, Texas, the local hospital had just closed and access to patient care in the community was severely limited. After seeing the depth of the uninsured and underinsured population, she took up the challenge of building an indigent care clinic from scratch. She set up the only clinic in town and began seeing patients, making herself available to her patients 24/7.

Her clinic grew into Health Center of Southeast Texas, and today she has seven physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) working with her in a 6300-square-foot building with nine exam rooms. Health Center of Southeast Texas also expanded and now includes three other clinics serving three surrounding counties, all supervised by Dr Sulaiman, who also continues to see patients.

Each year, for the Country Doctor of the Year award, "we look for a physician who is both an exemplary caregiver and one whose practice has a wider significance," Ebner told Medscape Medical News. "On an individual level, Dr Sulaiman is unquestionably a highly committed and compassionate physician who is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Her practice style also illustrates what we believe to be the future of rural medicine."

After the local hospital closed, "something that is becoming all too common in rural areas," Ebner explained, Dr Sulaiman became the "sole safety net for underserved patients in her three-county service area. She is doing this through the Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) model, which is taking an increasingly prominent role as the primary care provider for uninsured and underinsured patients in small towns and urban centers. All four of the FQHCs she has helped found are staffed with PAs and NPs — she is the only physician. All seven of her PAs and NPs rotated through her practice — so she has 'grown her own' staff," Ebner noted.

Dr Sulaiman also launched a program to upgrade medical care at the county jail, was instrumental in getting Health Center of Southeast Texas designated as a level 2 patient-centered medical home, and helped create an educational program that exposes local high school students to careers in healthcare. She also finds time to volunteer to provide free care in Mexico.

Dr Sulaiman has now set her sights on improving access to mental healthcare by adding telemedicine services in psychiatry, "a service line sorely lacking in rural areas," Ebner said.

"Given the ongoing shortage of rural physicians, it is mission-oriented physicians like Dr Sulaiman who will maintain services in rural areas through her own care and initiative and through the use of nonphysician clinicians and telemedicine. For these reasons, we believe Dr Sulaiman is a worthy Country Doctor of the Year," Ebner said.

A 2015 survey of the physician workforce in Texas shows just how bad the physician shortage is in the state.

According to the survey, 185 counties with a combined population of more than 3.1 million people have no psychiatrist, 158 counties with a combined population of 1.9 million have no general surgeon, 147 counties with a combined population of more than 1.8 million people have no obstetrician/gynecologist, 80 counties have five or fewer physicians, and 35 counties have no physician.

Out of the Rat Race

"Being recognized as the 2016 Country Doctor of the Year has been one of the most meaningful honors I have ever received," Dr Sulaiman told Medscape Medical News. "It represents the culmination of many years of education, hard work, and service, and I am so humbled to receive a national recognition at this point in my career. Most importantly, I am delighted to bring this recognition to my team, our clinics, and the communities we serve. I owe all of my professional accomplishments to the dedicated team of midlevel providers, support staff, and my CEO Mr. Steve Racciato who have supported and shared my vision of improving access to care in rural communities."

Dr Sulaiman highly recommends a career in rural medicine. "This is a challenging but rewarding area of health care. If you have empathy, enjoy forming close relationships with your patients, are a good listener, have and maintain competency in all patient primary care issues [and] procedures, and consider yourself a patient's advocate, rural medicine is for you," she said.

She added, "Practicing rural medicine takes you far away from the rat race and allows you to more fully focus on the patient experience and delivering meaningful, holistic care. Most rural medical practices also come with significant financial perks for US medical graduates, such as government student loan repayment and forgiveness programs. I love practicing rural medicine. Every new day brings new patients, new experiences, and new opportunities to get involved in my local community. As a rural health practitioner, I truly feel that I am a key part of my patients' well-being."

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