UNC study: Most N.C. family practitioners engage in unrecognized community service

03/31/05

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina family physicians contribute much to society because the great majority of them participate regularly in one or more volunteer community service activities, a unique new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study concludes. Often, that unpaid service has no connection with where they work and receives no public support from their employers.

"Philanthropy and community service are integral parts of American society, and many say the hallmark of medicine as well is public service," said Dr. Adam O. Goldstein, associate professor of family medicine at the UNC School of Medicine.

"We undertook a study of what our colleagues in North Carolina did because despite a tradition of community service and a common but often unspoken belief in its value in medical education, few data exist on U.S. physicians' service involvement in community activities outside of charity medical care," Goldstein said. "We were impressed with what we found in part because it was over and beyond the care physicians give in their practices, as well as charity and free professional care.

"Our study shows that nearly all family physicians reported participating in community service at some time in their professional careers," he said. "For most, this was an ongoing activity, suggesting it is a core aspect of their professional lives and of the discipline."

A report on the study appeared recently in the Journal of American Board of Family Practice. Besides Goldstein, UNC authors are Drs. Diane Calleson, Peter Curtis, Brian Hemphill, George Gamble and Beat Steiner of the department of family medicine. Dr. Thomas K. Moore of the Jacksonville, Fla., Naval Hospital also contributed to the research.

The study involved mailing questionnaires to 489 N.C. family physicians, including a 20 percent random sample of those in community practice and all who served as family medicine faculty members at the state's four medical schools. The overall response rate was 54 percent.

"Most respondents reported strong interests in community service before medical school and residency, yet few reported any relevant training during medical education," Goldstein said. "More than 85 percent of faculty and community practice family physicians reported participating in volunteer service in the previous year."

On average, family medicine faculty members gave almost 71 hours in volunteer time during the past 12 months, and community practitioners gave close to 46 hours. Over their lifetimes, the former reported being involved in almost 21 different volunteer activities while those working outside academia reported almost 17 different ones.

Fewer than half of either group said that their practice or program publicly supported their volunteer work, the physician said. The most frequently reported community services were giving talks on health-related and other topics, working with community groups on local issues including health-related ones and participating in local health events.

"If these data represent the range and hours of volunteer community service done by individual family physicians throughout the country, then the discipline is making a substantial contribution to society and their communities over and beyond the clinical care provided," Goldstein wrote.

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