American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®


Young physician leader makes a case for volunteering

Award winner says parenting concerns are just one of the challenges facing the new generation of physicians

From the May ACP Observer, copyright 2004 by the American College of Physicians.

By Janet Colwell

Six years ago, when Sima S. Desai, ACP Member, was finishing her internal medicine residency, volunteering was the last thing on her mind. Life was stressful enough with ward rotations and student loans.

But a few years can make a huge difference, said Dr. Desai, a hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at Portland's Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine. Now her volunteer work on hospital committees and her efforts as a mentor are some of the most rewarding aspects of her career.

"As you go further in your career, you realize that the only way to effect change is to get involved with groups that advocate for what you believe in," said Dr. Desai. "You will be heard if you speak up and participate."

That philosophy of getting—and staying—engaged has led to recognition for Dr. Desai, 36. At last month's Annual Session, she received the College's Walter J. McDonald Award for Young Physicians, which recognizes outstanding achievement in leadership, academics and/or volunteerism in a physician under 40.

In addition to committee, clinical and classroom responsibilities, Dr. Desai is also active in her local ACP chapter, where she's serving on the Governor's Council and Program Planning Committee, and chaired the Associates Council.

The importance of mentoring

Dr. Desai, who received her medical degree from the University of New Mexico in 1994, joined the staff of OHSU after completing her residency there in 1998. She is part of the university's six-physician hospitalist program and divides her time between patient care and teaching.

Mentoring students and residents is her favorite part of the job at OHSU. Inspired by several colleagues who influenced her, she's determined to give back by being there for others in the often-difficult training years.

"As a medical student, you tend to think that the more senior doctors are so far away from you, so it means a lot when someone takes the time to help," she said. Mentoring can include anything from writing a recommendation letter, she added, to counseling someone who is questioning whether they should stay in medicine.

As chief resident, Dr. Desai first started her committee work with the hospital's code 99 committee, which deals with issues surrounding patients who enter respiratory or cardiac arrest. She has gone on to co-chair that committee for almost three years and has seen many aspects of code responses improve.

She also serves on the diabetes multidisciplinary committee. And she is part of the women in academic medicine committee, where she is now working on a project to create a senior-junior women faculty mentoring program.

Working on committees is "enlightening," Dr. Desai said. "It's really helped me to know how the hospital works, and it allows me to be more effective in my own system. When you begin to understand how things work, you can take the next step on issues instead of just complaining about them."

Challenges facing young physicians

Working on the women in academic medicine committee has also exposed her to many of the issues working mothers face, such as challenges that come with child care and double-physician families.

While parenting issues are paramount for many physicians her age, she said, many institutions have been slow to make that realization. They have been even slower to implement much-needed solutions such as job-sharing arrangements, on-site day care and alternative tenure tracks.

Another major concern of young physicians is career choice, she added. "We worry whether we will be able to do one track for the rest of our careers," she said, "and what will happen to our skills, for instance, if we choose outpatient medicine with no inpatient care, or vice versa."

At the same time, she pointed out that young physicians are acutely aware of the problems facing health care, including projected Medicare deficits and access problems for patients who don't have insurance. Volunteering with her College chapter, she said, has exposed her to those broader issues.

"Working with ACP made me realize that it isn't just about my job," said Dr. Desai. "It's about being more aware of what's happening at the national level."


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