COMMENTARY

Family Physicians See How People's Lives Affect Health and Well-Being

April Lockley, DO

November 22, 2021

My journey to becoming a family medicine physician wasn't a linear path. However, that nonlinear path is what has led me to love this field of medicine and the connections I make with patients, while also continuing to hope for improvements within the systems that we utilize to provide care for patients.

Dr April Lockley

I became interested in becoming a physician during my very last semester of college. I volunteered in a hospital psychiatric department in the unit that provided electroconvulsive therapy to patients with severe mental health diagnoses. Although this was about 15 years ago, I still vividly remember the curiosity I had walking around the hospital looking around at all the doctors and nurses and wanting to understand what their day-to-day life was like helping people to optimize their health.

Up until that time, thankfully my family and I had been relatively healthy, and, outside of routine checkups, my time spent in a hospital or clinic was limited. Therefore, those months of volunteering at the hospital were the longest periods of time I'd spent around physicians and other health care professionals really witnessing firsthand the science and the art of medicine.

During my time volunteering I saw one patient over the course of several weeks who was catatonic when I first met her, but by the end of several electroconvulsive therapy treatments she had a subtle smile on her face and we were able to have a conversation. She was a younger Black woman like myself and at that moment I knew that I wanted to become a physician and be involved in people's lives in such a unique manner.

I worked for several years before applying to medical school. During that time two of my jobs involved doing home visits with children, young adults, and their families. I once again experienced the connection that one can make with someone and their family over a short period of time when you actively listen, understand what is important to them, and work together.

After several years of this work I got accepted into medical school and excitedly started the path to becoming a physician. While the learning curve was difficult, I genuinely enjoyed every block of medical school, including learning the anatomy, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. I could not wait to be in front of patients to use this newfound knowledge to help solve their health problems.

"There Is No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Struggle"

As I started the third year of medical school and clinical rotations, I found joy in being in hospitals and clinics. I also came to recognize that understanding the pharmacology of why metformin helps improve the hemoglobin A1c in people with diabetes is not necessarily one of the keys to helping people optimize their health. I started to talk with patients and all sorts of questions would come to mind. Where did they grow up? What did they identify as their culture? What did they do in their day to day? Did they have a home and support at that home? Are they someone's caretaker? What are their hopes for the future? And the list goes on.

I ultimately chose family medicine as a specialty because, as Audre Lorde said, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” and family medicine allows one to look at the intersections of people's lives and how they affect their health and well-being.

I currently practice as a family medicine physician in a setting in which I provide a lot of sexual and reproductive health care. I welcome patients of all ages and genders, and this care includes preconception counseling, contraceptive counseling, prenatal and postpartum care, STI testing and treatment, abortion care, and routine preventive care – just to name a few.

I decided to specialize in sexual and reproductive health care within family medicine because of the historic discrimination and inequitable treatment that is often experienced by young Black persons when they seek care for their sexual health and/or reproductive choices. In addition, there is often stigma within communities when it comes to talking about sex, bodies, and pleasure.

Recently, after a few minutes with a patient, she shared with me that she just completed nursing school and was studying for her exams. We talked about what type of jobs she was looking to apply for and where she wanted to work. I expressed to her that I was proud of the hard work she put in to complete nursing school and commiserated with her about the challenges in schooling and studying that it takes to start in the health care field. The conversation eventually found its way to talking about her sexual and reproductive health care. She shared with me that she was interested in having a child; however, at this time she put those plans on hold because she was scared about the racism within health care and the unacceptable high rates of maternal mortality among Black women in this country.

I listened and shared that as someone who also identifies as a Black woman, I have similar fears and anxieties surrounding my own reproductive health future. During the visit with this patient, I used my training in family medicine to better understand her physical and mental health needs and reassured her that I was going to partner with her through her health care journey.

Hope for the Future of Family Medicine

As I work on a day-to-day basis I often think about my hopes for patients, as well as my hopes for medicine and the field of family medicine. My hope for the future of family medicine is that we can continue to make meaningful connections with patients to help them optimize their health and well-being.

I imagine a system in which we have the time and support to do this for all of our patients regardless of their immigration status, socioeconomic status, or any other historically excluded status. My hope for the future of family medicine is that I can write a prescription for a medication or physical therapy, and the patient is able to fill the prescription without having to worry about the financial implications of paying for it. My hope for the future of family medicine is that patients can seek out care without the fear of discrimination or racism through an increasingly diverse work force. My hope for the future of family medicine is that these improvements become a reality and that as physicians we can appreciate the connections we make with patients and the impact this has on their overall health and well-being.

Lockley is a family medicine physician currently living in Harlem, N.Y., and a member of the editorial advisory board of Family Practice News. She currently works for Public Health Solutions' Sexual and Reproductive Health Centers in Brooklyn, providing primary care and reproductive health care services there, and as an abortion provider throughout the New York region. She completed both medical school and residency in Philadelphia and then did a fellowship in reproductive health care and advocacy through the Family Health Center of Harlem and the Reproductive Health Access Project. She can be reached at fpnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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