Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, was my first physician role model when I was a kid. She had full scope of practice in the Wild West, and what kid doesn’t like a good Western? But it wasn’t until later in high school that I started considering a career in medicine. A great biology teacher sparked my love for science. That, coupled with my passion for helping others, made medicine seem like a good fit.
In college, after a research mentor saw my interest in population health and improving systems, she encouraged me to look into MD/MPH programs. In medical school, many of my best teachers were primary care physicians who helped me achieve my goals and find my place in medicine. Some of these physicians meant so much to me as mentors; I even invited them to my wedding.
My experience is not unique. Many primary care clinicians have great teachers, mentors, and role models to thank for pointing them in that direction. But perhaps just as many of my colleagues around the country have struggled to find mentors and role models in primary care. Primary care physicians can be scarce in pre-clinical education, especially at large academic medical centers. The professors to whom first-year med students get the most exposure, from day one of med school, are often subspecialists. A first-year student might be more likely to meet a neurosurgeon than a family physician during the first week of classes. These clinicians often frame vignettes in a way that has the primary care physician serving as a specialist feeder or the person that missed the diagnosis. Though I do not believe they do this with malice, it contributes to the hidden unofficial curriculum that teaches students that primary care is inferior to other specialties.
Once students reach the clinical years, those interested in primary care are often placed in practices that aren’t ideal learning environments. To say these practices don’t show the best of primary care is an understatement. Additionally, I’ve seen some of the best residents in primary care take jobs at exciting, innovative practices that don’t allow students because it affects the practice’s bottom line. These are missed opportunities.
As we advance in our careers and search for opportunities, it is easy to remember to ask about hours, pay, and scope of practice. I think we need to do a better job of asking about and advocating for opportunities to teach and mentor the next generation of primary care physicians.
To expand the primary care workforce, we must make ourselves more visible and available to students. If you don’t know how, start by reaching out to the state chapter of your primary care or family medicine academy to learn what they are doing to address this problem and how you can become more involved in mentoring. Email clerkship directors and interest group leaders at the local medical school and volunteer to help fill a need or offer a different perspective. You can volunteer to give these students a lecture on something you’re passionate about, help with a skills workshop, or be on the admissions committee. Lastly, don’t forget about reaching out to kids before they even consider medical school. Many local schools and students are desperate for help with their pre-health curriculum and advising.
If students are not falling in your lap, go out and seek them. The future of primary care depends on students’ experiences with primary care physicians. Let’s make those experiences great.
Cleveland Piggott is a family medicine resident.