How can a family physician with a demanding clinical schedule juggle patient care with the grueling administrative and travel duties required of the president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)? Lori Heim, MD, FAAFP, found the perfect compromise: Give up the family practice and become a hospitalist.
She did so last November, soon after AAFP members voted her the next president of one of the nation’s largest medical organizations. In fact, she is the only hospitalist at 104-bed Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg, N.C.
“I was looking for an opportunity while I was working as president-elect and then president of the academy,” says Dr. Heim, who takes over as president of the 94,000-member AAFP in October. “Because of the heavy travel demands, it was not possible to keep my old practice.”
Although the career swap is borne of professional necessity, Dr. Heim says her transition to HM practice has been relatively easy. “I love it. [The new job] utilizes my prior training and skills,” she says. “In private practice, I was doing rounds on my own patients, then I would have to run to the office to see my other patients. I could see the advantages of using the hospitalist services. … Now, here I am on this side.”
An active AAFP member for nearly 25 years, Dr. Heim brings a unique confluence of medical training and experience to her new role. She has firsthand knowledge of the key issues intersecting primary care and hospital-based practice—care coordination, physician reimbursement, and quality improvement. She also acknowledges that walls need to be broken down when it comes to family physicians (FP) transitioning to HM careers. More complete training and improvement in hospital administrations’ understanding of an FP’s clinical capabilities will advance their entrance into hospitalist careers.
“I think it could become a large trend because of the financial constraints on family care,” Dr. Heim says, also noting the lifestyle benefits of an HM career. “FPs often cannot do both inpatient and outpatient care. Your productivity, if you are in the clinic, must make a tradeoff between rounds and office hours—and how late at night do I want to be doing rounds?”
Bumpy Road to HM
The transition from family practice to HM is working out well for Heim, but it wasn’t as smooth as one might expect for a decorated career physician.
The daughter of a military pilot, Dr. Heim earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from Portland State University and her medical degree at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Following her residency at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and a fellowship in faculty development and research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her military medical career resembled a spiral staircase. She went from staff physician to clinic chief to residency director to chief of medical staff, with a few stops in between. After 25 years of military service, she retired as an Air Force colonel and opened a private practice.
Even with decades of training and patient care under her belt, Dr. Heim wasn’t rubber-stamped into a hospitalist position. It’s an issue she hopes to address as part of her AAFP tenure. “I know of hospitals where family physicians can admit and treat their patients but not be considered for a hospitalist position. It happened to me,” she explains. “I went and found a hospital that would use my skills.”