Speaking their language

Dr. Suzanne Lester, a family physician and part-time instructor at the GHSU/UGA Medical Partnership, explains why she serves the underserved in Athens.

Local physician challenges medical students to work with vulnerable populations

It’s a painfully known fact that Georgia has one of the worst statewide physician shortages in the country. The Georgia Health Sciences University/UGA Medical Partnership in Athens was created with the goal of training new doctors to fill that hole.

But in addition to training a new generation of providers, GHSU is starting to look beyond the basics of medical education by fostering another important aspect of health care that’s lacking in Georgia: primary care for the underserved.

Dr. Suzanne Lester is one of the faculty members making this happen. Lester, a local family physician and part-time instructor at the Partnership, specializes in treating the people often overlooked by the health care system, and hopes to set an example for GHSU’s future doctors.

“I see a ton of Medicaid and uninsured and Spanish-speaking patients,” said Lester. “Which is really who I want to see, because my heart is as a community physician.”

The effects of Georgia’s physician shortage are glaring, with the state ranking 40th in overall health status in the nation. And Athens-Clarke County is considered one of 16 counties in the state with the worst health outcomes for minorities.

Statistics like those are what inspired Lester to move to Athens straight out of her California residency, where she regularly saw disadvantaged patients, but also an abundance of physicians all sharing the same ideals.

“I thought, ‘I might actually be useful there [Georgia],’ instead of being one of a hundred, or a thousand,” said Lester.

Doctors like Lester, bilingual and trained to work with growing immigrant populations, are a rarity in Georgia but greatly needed. Hispanics make up around eight percent of Georgia’s population and are more likely to be uninsured than any other ethnicity.

So when Lester learned about the opening of the Medical Partnership, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to encourage medical students to think about marginalized patients and to begin creating a network of community clinics with the medical school as the cornerstone.

This kind of thinking is especially important in a time when medical education has become increasingly “ivory tower,” says Clive Slaughter, a biochemistry professor at the Partnership and Lester’s colleague. “We’re trying to do everything we can to prevent that from happening here,” he said.

As part of its integrated curriculum, the Partnership gives medical students the chance to plan community health projects to highlight the social aspects of health care. But while the medical school employs a number of community physicians to show students the ins and outs of medicine, Lester is unique in her ability to put a face to a population that can be unsettling for new medical students.

“She’s a bridge between the communities that are a bit frightening for medical students, and medical care,” said Slaughter. “She makes it comfortable for the students to be among those groups and she has insights about the people in them.”

Lester often brings students into her office to see her “type” of patients while teaching clinical skills like history-taking and interviewing.

“Almost every patient has had a bad experience,” said Lester. “So they see interacting with the students as an opportunity to affect a change in the next generation of physicians, and that’s exciting to them.”

She hopes that by visiting her practice, taking her classes and being exposed to her patients, the medical students will be motivated to later work with patients who don’t always get a voice in the health care system.

“We [the medical partnership] all have the same point of view that we want to create compassionate, sensitive doctors and we really try to focus on the fact that that is as important as your medical knowledge,” said Lester.

Laura Smith

Laura Smith

Laura Smith graduated in 2010 from UGA with degrees in journalism and sociology. In addition to earning her master's in health and medical journalism, Laura is also pursuing a certificate in global health from the College of Public Health. She has a soft spot for infectious disease, which led her to East Africa in July 2011 to report on schistosomiasis control efforts. She hopes to use her degree to write truthful, effective health messages to the public on vaccination, infectious disease and the dynamics of our health system.

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