Dr. Elizabeth Edmunds knew she was going to be a family doctor from a very young age. She couldn’t have known that she’d still be doing it in her 70s, although that was always her plan; nor could she know she’d one day be named the finest family physician in Pennsylvania. She simply knew that she wanted to serve and love patients.
“I saw what my family doctor did, and I liked it, and he was a great role model,” said Edmunds. “I just wanted to be a family physician and go back to the community and work in a clinic for the poor.” Edmunds, 72, was a fighter for family medicine well before the current age of EHRs, the Affordable Care Act and “#FMrevolution.” Forget the phrase “founding fathers” — the former sister (she spent a portion of her early adulthood in a convent) is the mother of modern medicine in family practice.
“When I was in medical school, I was kind of a thorn in the side of some of the people at the medical school because I was a very, very strong advocate for family medicine,” said Edmunds. “I even wrote an article for the school paper about it. And I remember the dean said to me one time, he said, ‘Elizabeth, what you’re advocating is 100 percent correct. But would you please keep your mouth shut until you graduate? Because you’re disturbing too many faculty.’”
“I kept fighting,” she said with a laugh, “but I did it a little more subtly. Let’s put it that way.”
Family medicine has come a long way from its recognition as a specialty in 1969 — and so have attitudes about practicing it.
“Back when I went to medical school, the attitude in medical school was, ’We shouldn’t be training you to be a family doctor, because if that’s what you want to do, you only want to play at being a doctor,’” said Edmunds. “That was the attitude back in the ‘70s.
“They told us often in medical school, if you got too emotionally involved with your patients, you were going to burn out early,” she said. “Well, guess what? I’m one of the few still working from my class! The ones who cut themselves off didn’t have that much satisfaction from their practices and retired earlier.
“I can’t remember a day that I sat up and said ‘I don’t want to go to work,’” Edmunds said.
And the reason she loves her job, of course, is that Edmunds isn’t afraid to emotionally invest in her patients.
“I love taking care of the whole family, really — the fact that I know everybody,” said Edmunds. “I take care of mom, dad, and the kids. They’re like my extended family, and I mean that when I say that.”
One such family — a mother, a father, a son and a daughter — have involved Edmunds in their holiday plans for the last several years.
“We have a standing date for Christmas brunch. I go to their place, and I make homemade waffles and [the wife] makes the rest of the meal, and we have Christmas brunch together,” said Edmunds. The son and daughter are now adults, but Edmunds is quick to point out, “I’ve taken care of both of those kids since they took their first breath.”
Of course, her patients don’t just love Edmunds for her homemade waffles. Another member of Edmunds’ “extended family” appreciates Edmunds for her kind heart and listening ear.
“One of my patients said to me one day, ‘You know, you’re the only person, the only doctor I’ve been to, who will sit and listen to me and understand where I’m coming from. And when I walk out of here, if you refer me to somebody, I know you’re sending me to somebody that you would allow to take care of yourself or your family.”
The relationships that Edmunds has built with so many people over her years of practice have done more than enhanced lives — they’ve saved lives, as in the case of a patient who came in with a complaint of exhaustion. Edmunds noticed that she was “white as a sheet” and immediately sent her to the hospital, where she was treated for a blood count so low that it could have been fatal.
“I know what they look like. I’ve been seeing them all along,” said Edmunds. “It was different, and I knew that. When you’re in a clinic situation where other people see your patients, that’s not going to happen.
“I’ve always had this one-on-one, personal relationship with my patients,” she said. “I know them so well, and there’s nothing they can’t talk to me about. That’s what made all these years of family medicine rewarding.”
While many doctors are reticent to use personal communication technology, Edmunds invites her patients to contact her whenever they need her.
“I have an email account that they can use to communicate with me, so that if they need something, they don’t want to have to run to the office or try to get through office red tape to get to me, they can get in touch with me,” Edmunds said. “I tell them, I may not check it every day! I check it at least every other day. If they need something, they need to give me a day or two to get to it. But they’re good about it, they know that.”
The technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed since Edmunds began practicing family medicine. In fact, Edmunds doesn’t have to think hard to determine what the largest change has been.
“Government interference and poor insurance coverage for patients, health care regulations, and the fact that they dictate to us how we’re supposed to do things because we need to get approval for just about everything,” said Edmunds.
“Sometimes, I wonder why I bothered to go to medical school, because insurances now tell you what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it and what you can prescribe and what you can do,” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We don’t seem to have the chance to use what we were trained to do.”
There are also plenty of changes Edmunds would like to see happen more quickly.
“I think there has been more recognition of family medicine, but I don’t think it has achieved the place it should yet,” said Edmunds. “We’re the ones who do all the grassroots work.”
Speaking of recognition, Edmunds is thrilled to be named the 2013 Family Physician of the Year.
“I just really feel that it’s gratifying to finally be recognized for what I’ve done,” she said. “And I never expected it. You know, if it never happened, I’m still happy with what I’ve done and the way I’ve cared for my patients — but it was very, very nice to be recognized for all the care and the effort I’ve put in to provide superb care for my patients.”
Edmunds is especially proud of one of the many people who nominated and supported her for the award — a former Drexel student who’d planned to go into anesthesiology before joining Edmunds for his mandatory family medicine rotation.
“I kind of became his unofficial counselor,” said Edmunds. “Later on, he informed me that he was going into family medicine because of his experience with me.”
The legacy that began with her family physician many years ago looks like it will continue for years to come.
“In my acceptance speech that I gave when I got the award, I told people that I was grateful this kid was there to see this,” said Edmunds. “I felt that I had accomplished my mission in medicine, because now I had ‘replaced’ myself. And he is so good and so conscientious that I really, really, really feel good about the fact that I was his inspiration.”
“He cares about people the way that I do,” she said. “One of the things that blew my mind — in fact, it brought tears to my eyes — he told me, and this was even before he nominated me for the award of Family Physician of the Year, that he hoped that he could be as good a family doctor as I am.”
The world needs more family physicians like Edmunds — and she has a few words for medical students deciding on a specialty.
“If they want a profession where they’re going to find satisfaction personally — personally, more than anything else, because it’s not going to give them the big financial rewards that some of the high-powered specialties will give — then go into family medicine,” said Edmunds. “The rewards you get from the relationships with your patients, and your ability to actually do something good, are beyond measure.”
This article originally was published in the Fall 2013 issue of Keystone Physician Magazine. Learn more about what Family Physicians are doing in Pennsylvania, ask us on Twitter, email us, or better yet, ask your family physician.