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Good News gets help finding good doctors

POSTED: June 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Dr. Bob Wright, an ophthalmologist, demonstrates an eye procedure on Good News Clinic volunteer Dustin Davis in the clinic's eye examination room Friday afternoon at the Pine Street clinic. Wright, who is retired, donates his time at the free clinic as do dozens of other professionals in various fields of medicine.

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Free clinics for the poor are seen as a partial solution to the nation’s health care crisis. But most of these clinics are staffed by volunteer physicians, and many practicing doctors aren’t able to take time out of their hectic lives to participate.

The answer: Recruit more retired physicians. A new program is helping a Gainesville clinic to do just that.

"In the past, we’ve recruited physicians by word of mouth," said Cheryl Christian, director of Good News Clinics, which provides free medical and dental care to low-income, uninsured patients.

It’s no secret that there are plenty of retired doctors in Northeast Georgia, which has been rated as one of the best places in the country for retirees to live. Some of these newcomers may be interested in
volunteer work, but they might not be familiar with Good News.

That’s where TAP-IN, short for Third Age Professional Initiative, may be able to help. The nonprofit is already assisting free clinics in Virginia and North Carolina, and is about to launch a pilot project in the metro Atlanta area. Three clinics have been selected, including Good News.

"When we were chosen, we were real excited," said Christian. "We can always use more retired physicians and dentists."

Dr. William Straub, a retired Pennsylvania radiologist who founded TAP-IN, said in other states the program only recruited physicians, but in Georgia it will be expanded to include other professionals such as dentists and nurses.

Christian said the current volunteer roster at Good News comprises 35 doctors, 43 dentists, seven nurse practitioners or physician assistants, and three pharmacists.

"Only two of our dentists are retired, but 25 percent of our doctors are retired," she said.

The clinic needs a large pool to draw from, because some volunteers work only once a week or once a month.

Straub said no one has an exact count of how many retired doctors there are in the United States, but they do know how many are at or near retirement age.

"There are 160,000 doctors over 65, and 250,000 over 55," he said. "Studies show that many doctors are interested in giving back (to their community). Our criterion is that they can’t have been out of practice for more than three years."

Volunteering at a free clinic is appealing to physicians for a number of reasons, Straub said. "They don’t have to work every day, they don’t have to be on call, and they don’t have to deal with the paperwork."

Dr. Bob Wright, a retired Gainesville ophthalmologist who volunteers at Good News one day a week, said it’s a relief to be free of the bureaucratic managed care system.

"I don’t have to worry about sending out bills," he said.

Wright practiced in Gainesville from 1967 until 1999. He often treated patients referred from Good News, because at the time the clinic didn’t have the equipment to perform eye exams. After Wright retired, he donated his equipment to Good News and began to volunteer there.

"I only do medical ophthalmology now," he said. "If patients need surgery, I refer them to another doctor."

Wright said it’s relaxing to just concentrate on patients rather than performing procedures.

"It’s been a rewarding experience," he said. "I enjoy doing it."

His brother, retired dermatologist A.D. Wright, also volunteers at the clinic.

Bob Wright said some specialists who volunteer treat patients only in their specialty, while others are looking for a different experience.

"Some specialists who retire come here and just practice general medicine, which of course we were all trained to do," he said.

But Good News really needed him to serve as an ophthalmologist. A high percentage of the clinic’s patients have diabetes, a disease that can lead to blindness if not treated.

"Diabetics need an exam once a year," said Wright. "It’s so much easier for them to be seen here at the clinic, where we have their entire medical record, rather than referring them. Many of them don’t have transportation (to go to a specialist)."

Wright said patients needn’t worry that retired physicians are uninformed about the latest advances in medicine.

"Even as a volunteer, you have to have 20 hours of continuing medical education every year in order to keep your Georgia license," he said.

In some states, the biggest deterrent for volunteer physicians is fear of liability. They don’t want to have to pay huge malpractice insurance premiums in order to work at a free clinic. But under a new Georgia law, volunteer doctors are shielded from being sued.

It’s hoped that the law will encourage more communities to create free clinics. Straub said Georgia currently has 45 to 50, compared to about 55 in Virginia and 75 in North Carolina.

He said TAP-IN has begun contacting retired professionals in North Georgia, using databases from medical societies and licensing boards, to let them know about opportunities for volunteering.

"We’ll also have a recruitment specialist based in Atlanta, who will work with the Georgia Free Clinic Network," Straub said. "He’ll be making presentations to market the program."

Wright thinks many retired physicians would jump at the chance to be able to use their skills again.

"It’s a service that I’m happy to provide for as long as I can," he said.



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