Physician "grew her own" HIV doc for practice

Volunteer returns as doc with a calling

At least one HIV physician is not waiting for a federal or foundation-based solution to her personal HIV doctor shortage problem. Instead she has tackled the problem by "growing" her own HIV clinician.

Sharon Lee, MD, a long-time HIV clinician, provides care to indigent patients at Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care in Kansas City, KS. Lee and an HIV doctor colleague have provided care for 800 patients at the practice which Lee opened decades earlier when her patients mostly needed palliative care and much of the care took place in inpatient settings.

But the unthinkable happened when her colleague of the past five years announced he had to move because of his wife's job in another state.

"So he's looking for a job in New Mexico in HIV care," Lee says. "It's not so bad that we're losing an HIV treater in the nation; I'm just losing an HIV treater in my practice."

Luckily, Lee has a replacement in the wings: "I have a fellow finishing his residency in family medicine, and he'll be joining me next summer," she says.

The new HIV physician was a volunteer in Lee's clinic when he was a high school student. He became dedicated to the cause of treating HIV/AIDS patients and attended medical school with that ambition in mind.

"I'm really excited," Lee says. "We have our home-grown fellow coming back."

Training this young family medicine doctor comes naturally to Lee who also began her career in family medicine, opening a clinic for the poor at the same time doctors nationwide began to see the strange symptoms that later were identified as characteristic of AIDS.

"The first time I saw somebody in my office with AIDS, I called one of my infectious disease buddies and said, 'I think I'm seeing this thing we've heard about – AIDS, and I don't know what to do,'" Lee recalls. "He said, 'If he doesn't have insurance, don't send him to me because you can handle it since there's not much we can do for them; the treatment is mostly to die with dignity.'"

Lee took his advice, received a certification in palliative care as soon as this was available, and soon became one of the largest HIV care clinics in the area.

HIV clinicians might not have any control over national training of HIV doctors or the number of available, federally-supported residency spots. But they can mentor students and others interested in becoming HIV physicians, growing their own replacements as their retirement years approach, Lee suggests.

"It will be part of the job of doctors who are doing the work to attract these new doctors into the fold," she says.

The new doctor who will be joining Lee's clinic received financial help with his medical education, and that's another important factor. HIV doctors could help interested individuals find grants and loan-forgiveness programs that would make medical school fiscally feasible.

"When people choose to work at our clinic they are making a very significant financial sacrifice," Lee says. "In our situation, that's particularly true, but that's also the case for most primary care doctors."

People who choose to go into primary care, which is the least lucrative of the medical professions, do so because they're interested in helping others, she adds.

"We can help them be more interested by mentoring them," Lee says.