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


California transplant doesn’t mind being out in the cold

After four decades in Alaska, this new Master still relishes selling new doctors on the area’s wild terrain

From the June ACP Observer, copyright 2006 by the American College of Physicians.

By Christine Bahls

Forty years ago, the Vietnam War was escalating and physicians, like other American men, were being drafted. Two years shy of the draft cut-off age, Keith M. Brownsberger, MACP, then age 33, was advised by his local draft board to either sign up with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps or prepare to join the military.

Keith M. Brownsberger, MACP, hikes a ridge near the west end of Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing, Alaska.

Fresh from an infectious disease fellowship at Stanford University and with a wife and four children to care for, Dr. Brownsberger opted to join the Indian Health Service. He was given the choice of serving in either Oklahoma City or Anchorage, and chose the latter.

During his two-year tour of duty, he served as chief of medicine at the Alaska Native Medical Center. He and his family planned to return to California after his stint—but they fell in love with their adopted home and have never left. Another factor in the decision: The five general internists then in private practice in Anchorage "pleaded with me to stay."

"If you like to play and live in the outdoors, this town is like living in a candy store," Dr. Brownsberger said. "Ten minutes out of town and you're in the wilderness." Today, he doesn't hesitate to sell that advantage to try to attract new physicians to practice in his hometown. A former Governor for ACP's Alaska Chapter, he was one of 53 physicians to receive ACP Mastership at this year's Annual Session.

Quid pro quo

Dr. Brownsberger has been very much involved with the WWAMI program in Alaska, a partnership between the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The University of Washington admits and trains medical students from those other states because they do not have their own medical school.

The legislatures of each state fund part of students' tuition, while state universities teach the first-year class from their state using University of Washington's curriculum. Several states have a pay-back provision if students elect not to returnto their home state to practice medicine. Dr. Brownsberger served on the admissions committee for the Alaska WWAMI students for 12 years.

Alaska admits only 10 students each year out of an applicant pool of between 65 and 75. "We are not educating enough Alaskan physicians to replace our aging and retiring physician population," Dr. Brownsberger said. "We are asking the state legislature to increase our class size from 10 to 20 students." He also trains first- and third-year medical students in his office with help from his two partners.

Unique patients, students

Most Alaskans are active outdoorspeople—who frequently injure themselves while having fun.

This makes practicing medicine in the state somewhat unique. Dr. Brownsberger said, and attracts many orthopedic surgeons. The large number of fractures and surgical repairs creates occasional bone infections, which keep Dr. Brownsberger and the other infectious disease physicians busy.

Another unique characteristic of Alaskans: their love of travel. "The oil business is a big part of our economy, and those workers may also have jobs in Asia, Africa or South America," he pointed out. "They occasionally return with malaria or other tropical diseases."

The fishing industry, which is also booming, attracts fisherpeople from all over the world. As they travel back and forth to their home countries, they occasionally import interesting infectious diseases.

Dr. Brownsberger's tongue-in-cheek advice on avian flu? "If you are having visitors in your home from Southeast Asia, tell them to leave their ducks and chickens at home." He also extends a warm invitation to all ACP members to attend the Alaska Chapter meeting in Anchorage, being held June 22-24—but warns, "you may never want to leave."


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