DECATUR ─ Part of the job of being a physician is to advocate on behalf of the patient. For the physicians in Etowah County who comprise the nonprofit organization known as Physicians Who Care, this isn’t just part of their job…it’s their mission.
Physicians Who Care of Northeast Alabama was founded in 1988 as a grassroots patients’ rights advocacy group. Originally, PWC was one of five physician-led patient-advocacy groups in the nation led by a national organization in response to the managed care practices of the time, according to PWC President Seth Spotnitz, M.D.
“When we first started there were groups in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Detroit working to stand up for our patients,” Dr. Spotnitz said. “The national organization lasted about 10 years. They did a good job of lobbying in Washington and publishing some articles regarding national health care, but they dissolved around 2000 after the patients’ rights legislation passed. The other groups began to fade away, not seeing the need for local advocacy for patient advocates, but we did. We kept going. Since then we’ve been working in the community to improve relations with the population by doing numerous activities fundraisers.”
The Physicians Who Care of Northeast Alabama stay busy in their community. From publishing a directory as a service to the citizens of Etowah County to hosting a 5K Run/Walk each April with proceeds going to the Etowah County Cancer Foundation, the physician members of PWC work hard outside their normal business days to take care of others in their community.
One of the popular events hosted by the group is the A-Day physicals for county student-athletes. In order for students to be able to participate in school sports, they must have a physical in the spring. In 2018, the PWC physician volunteers saw 371 student-athletes during the A-Day physicals. Unfortunately, according to President-Elect Matt Lovato, M.D., this one day may be the only day a student sees a physician, so he wanted to make it count by reshaping how the group sees the students.
“We did it to where we were doing things a little bit more comprehensively. You can allow students to play sports with a pretty limited exam,” Dr. Lovato explained, “but we knew, with some of these kids, they would use this sports medical exam as a substitute for any checkup with their regular doctor. We went from doing the limited exams to doing a complete exam which made it possible for the physicians to detect more issues that we wouldn’t necessarily on a lesser exam. We can now detect things that allow us to let these students and their parents know they need to follow up with their family physicians. There’s always the possibility of catching something that could be life-threatening during one of these exams, but we haven’t yet found anything that the students and their parents weren’t already aware of, but doing more comprehensive exams allows us the opportunity to make sure these patients are healthy.”
PWC has given back to the community in so many ways during the years. From providing projecting microscopes for all the high schools in the county to hosting Thanksgiving dinners for residents who are less fortunate to raising money to help the chamber of commerce build office space, when the community calls, PWC always answers.
“One of our major accomplishments I’m most proud of is that we are responsible for the rehabilitation hospital here in town,” Dr. Spotnitz said. “We wanted and needed a rehab hospital here, so we contacted various hospitals. At the time HealthSouth seemed to be the best fit. The PWC went to the CON Commission and were able to give them the right to build here. Now it’s called Encompass, but it was a great achievement for us. We all pulled together to get them here for our patients.”
For Dr. Spotnitz, the need for local advocacy is real, and Etowah County has the power from within to fill that need. The physicians themselves have managed to propel Physicians Who Care forward for years now, and they have no plans to stop.
“We know there are organizations fighting for medicine on a national level, so that’s not our focus here,” Dr. Spotnitz said. “We have to do what we can here in our little area of the country. The bottom line is that we do all this because we believe the physician is to be the patient’s advocate right here where we can do the most good.”