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Stella Fitzgibbons, MD, FHM, Relishes the Variety, Interactions of Hospitalist Practice


Stella Fitzgibbons, MD, FHM, was an engineer for several years after college. But there wasn’t enough working with people for her taste. So she moved into internal medicine. But then there was, how to put this, something lacking in office work.

Stella Fitzgibbons, MD, FHM

Stella Fitzgibbons, MD, FHM

“I realized how bored I was with office practice and how much more interesting were the problems at the hospital than outpatient ones,” Dr. Fitzgibbons says.

So she went to work in hospitals. She hasn’t left.

Dr. Fitzgibbons is a hospitalist and ED practitioner with Mint Physician Staffing, primarily in the Apollo Hospital System in The Woodlands, Texas. And the best part of the job for Dr. Fitzgibbons, one of eight new members of Team Hospitalist, the volunteer editorial advisory board of The Hospitalist newsmagazine, is easy to pick.

“Seeing sick people get better,” she says.

Question: Switching careers from engineering to medicine is a big step. What motivated that?

Answer: I wanted to see my efforts helping people I could actually see, and I thought—and still do—that medicine uses my talents better and is far more interesting.

Q: You say office practice became a bit boring. How so? What appealed about the inpatient setting?

A: An internist in the office only sees a tiny fraction of the interesting problems that our field covers. Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed by a rheumatologist, who then makes all the decisions. Abdominal pain gets sent to the hospital, where all the diagnostic tests are done.

Fortunately, my multispecialty group arranged for about a quarter of its internists [the youngest quarter in most cases] to manage hospital patients; I figured out pretty quickly that it was only there that I got to see pulmonary hypertension, congestive heart failure, and acute abdomens. Even night call was better at the hospital since office doctors only answered phone calls and never had a chance to do any real evaluation and treatment no matter how sick the caller was.

And a problem at the office was something that made me run behind that odious and impractical appointment schedule; at the hospital I was seeing real illnesses, not people who wanted a prescription med for their sore throat so they wouldn’t be bothered with it on their vacation.

Q: What is your biggest professional challenge?

A: EHRs.

Q: What is your biggest professional reward?

A: When a patient says, “Thanks for taking care of me, doctor.”

Q: What does teaching mean to you, and how has it been gratifying in your career?

A: Teaching means paying it forward, in gratitude to those who taught me, with the reward of seeing light bulbs go off behind the eyes of students and younger doctors who are eager to learn.

Q: When you aren’t working, what is important to you?

A: Family and music and church.

Q: Faith is obviously important to you. How does that help your work as a care provider?

A: I don’t think anybody goes around being religious all the time. But it sometimes makes all the difference knowing that a higher power is looking out for me and the patients.

Q: You’ve described mentoring as fun for you. What exactly do you mean by fun?

A: Mentoring is what we do. Patients, nurses—anybody we work with—need explanations and clarifications. About the third day of med school, docs in training realize that anybody who can help us understand and retain the huge stream of information directed at us is performing a necessary service. Throughout the training period, residents teach students, fellows teach residents, and attending faculty teach everybody. Doctors in training are bright people who want to learn both the facts and how to deal with patients’ side of things, and feeding their desires is very enjoyable.

Q: You’d like to see more physicians than MBAs in decision-making positions. Why? What real changes do you think that would effectuate?

A: Physicians and nurses were administrators for decades before insurance company penny-pinching and government regulations led hospitals to hire “bean counters” to replace them. It is a tremendous change for the worse, to have people making decisions for patients whose primary consideration is the bottom line.

Q: What’s next professionally?

A: Small-volume ERs, where I don’t have to do discharge planning while being harassed by insurance company reps.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: Retired.

Q: If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be doing right now?

A: Law enforcement.

Q: Devices like iPhones and tablets can take away from patient face time. But they can also be valuable. How do you balance that? How do you encourage younger docs to do so, particularly when they’re much more used to having smartphones glued to their hands?

A: I use my iPhone when I’m with patients … but only when they can see the reason I need it to help them, such as looking up the side effects of a medication. Electronic health records can work on an iPad, but I hesitate to use them unless the patient knows just what I am doing, such as looking up results of a lab test that concerns them. Taking a computer on wheels into a patient’s room means that I spend part of the visit looking at a screen instead of at the patient, and I prefer to avoid it if at all possible.

Q: What’s the best book you’ve read recently? Why?

A: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. Great continuation of the Holmes stories, with a seamless link to [Sir Arthur] Conan Doyle’s style.

Q: How many Apple products (phones, iPods, tablets, iTunes, etc.) do you interface with in a given week?

A: Three.

Q: What’s your favorite social network? Do you use it all for work or professional development?

A: Facebook. Heck no, it’s just fun.

Q: What’s next in your Netflix queue?

A: Last two episodes of Game of Thrones season 5.

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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