The road to happiness is never long for Deborah Clements, MD, chair of family and community medicine.
“I’ve learned that you have to be willing to take opportunities as they arise, not necessarily knowing where they’ll lead,” she says. “Some of the best experiences I’ve had have grown from the randomness of life.”
In 2010, that approach brought Dr. Clements to one of the most devastated cities on the planet. As her plane touched down in Port-au-Prince, it was evident that only a resilient people could endure through such destruction and despair.
“The Haitians would walk for miles and miles to get even the simplest things,” says Clements, who arrived on the Caribbean island about a month after the deadly earthquake. “They didn’t have so much as a Tylenol®, but they wanted to get better. They wanted to live.”
This spring, her own resilient nature brought Clements “home” to her native Chicago, where she now serves as chair and directs a residency program poised to double in size.
“With the Affordable Care Act and universal coverage, there is a recognition that the best healthcare system will be primary care-based, making this an exciting time to lead the Department of Family and Community Medicine,” she explains. “It’s amazing to help learners develop into physicians and then watch them go off into the community, seeing their growth and thinking about the lives they will touch.”
Clements’ route to family physician began later in life than most, following a successful career in healthcare administration and the contemplation that stems from personal tragedy. At the age of 30, she found herself a widow. At 33, she began to pursue a passion harbored since high school.
With renewed perspective and a belief that she had to work harder than her peers, Clements quickly took on various leadership roles, serving as a delegate and later the national resident representative on the American Academy of Family Physicians’ (AAFP) board of directors.
“I got the 50,000-foot view of what organized medicine looked like and how we could effect change individually in a way that I never really appreciated before,” she recalls. “A big part of family medicine―and medicine in general―is about relationship building, so it’s important for me to know that I am doing my part, whether it be at a local, statewide, or national level.”
Doctor and Patient
Board certified in family medicine, Clements received her MD from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, at which point she completed her family medicine residency, serving as chief resident in 1999. In 2002, she became a fellow of the AAFP and the Society of National Primary Care Policy, before completing an interdisciplinary primary care fellowship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and later a fellowship in family medicine residency programs at the National Institute for Program Director Development.
She joined the faculty at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) in 2004, remarried, and became program director of family medicine and vice chair for medical residency.
And then in 2007, breast cancer struck.
“I nearly died a couple of times, but what I gained was insight into what happens in the lives of my patients in a way that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Dr. Clements says. “It gave me a greater degree of empathy for the small things and how confusing, absolutely mystifying it can be to try and navigate the healthcare system.”
A year after treatment, Clements wanted to rid herself of the idea that cancer was changing the way she lived. When the deadly quake struck Haiti, she would go to help, spending 10 days in the cities of Port-au-Prince and Leogane.
“It was absolutely unbelievable,” she recalls, having also been part of medical response teams following massive tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Greensburg, Kan. “We had hundreds and hundreds of people that would come for care in a never-ending flow.”
Riding into the Future
Free from the burden of disease and turning 50, Clements implored husband, Walt, to abide by one of life’s unwritten rules.
“When you survive cancer, you get a motorcycle,” she says.
As the program director of the new Northwestern McGaw Family Medicine Residency to be based at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, Dr. Clements plans to trade her white coat for a leather jacket a few times this summer, making the 15-mile commute from home on her Harley-Davidson.
“My passion for motorcycles started as a child,” Clements says, stressing that she always wears a helmet. “Harley owners are really a family. I’ve been impressed throughout my life; when trouble has come, the Harley family is always there.”
Practicing family medicine in Grayslake, Clements will lead the expansion into Lake County of a residency program which began in 2010 at Norwegian American Hospital and Erie Family Health Center in Chicago.
Graduating its first class this past July, Clements was pleased to see seven of the eight doctors moving on to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) or FQHC-like clinics.
“We’re really demonstrating that we are meeting the mission for that residency program and we’d like that to continue in Lake County,” she says.
The new program at Lake Forest is expected to enroll its first class of eight trainees in July 2015, bringing the total number of doctors in the Northwestern McGaw Family Medicine Residency program to 48 five years from now. While residents will have some interaction with one another, the urban and suburban programs will remain separate, focusing care on their distinct patient populations.
“These residents will help reduce the burden and cost of care and begin to offset an underrepresentation of family physicians in the Chicagoland area,” Dr. Clements believes. “Before we began our residency in Humboldt Park, Feinberg was ranked near the bottom of the 140-plus family medicine programs in the country. One of the ways we will continue to make it stronger is by calling upon the expertise of our strong alumni base. In the very near future, I’d like to start a lecture series led by alumni to help educate our trainees.”
Clements would also like to change the national misconception that family physicians are not specialized – they are board certified to offer treatment across a spectrum of care from birth to death.
“As leaders, it is our responsibility to change the way people think and to increase the opportunities for medical students to pursue a future in family medicine,” she says. “One way we can do this is to expand the availability of family physician mentors in Streeterville for Feinberg students. Our new residency program is going to double our output of qualified physicians, but we still have plenty of work to do.”
In addition to their clinical duties, which include rotations in school-based and teen health centers and within a safety-net community hospital, trainees in the first graduating class at Humboldt Park also led projects to develop insulin protocols and increase patient safety.
“I see this large void between Chicago and Milwaukee, where family medicine residencies don’t exist,” Dr. Clements says. “Our entry into Lake County will be the first step in a process that will help establish Northwestern as a regional leader in training America’s future family physicians.”
By The Numbers
- Nearly one in four office visits in the U.S. are to a family physician, accounting for approximately 208 million visits each year.
- Family physicians provide more care for America’s underserved and rural populations than any other medical specialty.
- Based on national requirements, these residents will care for more than 40,000 individuals as outpatients.
- The family medicine residents will deliver at least 1,080 children during their training and care for thousands of hospitalized patients; all under the supervision of the excellent physician faculty at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.