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Published in CenterView on August 27, 2012
Beebe, left, with M4 students John Browning and Katie O’Neal Royals
Beebe, left, with M4 students John Browning and Katie O’Neal Royals

Family medicine chair tapped to lead nation’s second-largest medical specialty board

By Gary Pettus

To her colleagues, students and patients, Dr. Diane K. Beebe, professor and chair of family medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is known as a down-to-earth professional who’s as discreet and reassuring as her white lab coat.

She is also known as the unlikely driver of a muscle-bound sports car that’s apparently itching for a fight.

And yet, the matchup between serene healer and her eyeball-blistering red Corvette makes sense – once you look under the hood.

Referring to her car, Beebe also could have been talking about herself: “I go the speed limit,” she said, “but when you’re behind the wheel you know you have the power to do what you need to do.”

Even before her recent selection as chair-elect of the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM), Beebe commanded significant power. Not only has she served on the ABFM board for three years, she has led or served on various statewide medical associations.

But now, as the emerging head of the ABFM, the second-largest of the country’s 24 medical specialty boards, she has the potential to accelerate her clout and, she hopes, get things moving in the study of family medicine here at the Medical Center and beyond.

She has the horses to do it, too, said Dr. James Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

“This is a big deal,” Keeton said. “To become the leader of the American Board of Family Medicine is not only an honor for her, it’s also an honor for this Medical Center. There is a huge need for physicians in this state, especially primary care physicians.

“Now she’s in a position to help Mississippi.”

The need for these physicians is well-documented.

As of April, 49 of Mississippi’s 82 counties had too few physicians working in primary care, an umbrella term covering the specialties of family medicine or practice, internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology.

That shortage was pinned down by the Northeast Mississippi Area Health Education Center at Mississippi State University, which also found that approximately 900,000 Mississippians – nearly one-third of the population – are underserved in primary care.

The physician famine afflicts other states as well, Beebe said.

“My hope is our country sees this shortage and does something about it,” she said.

Beebe, 54, will argue her case from a national platform now. In April, her peers picked her as chair-elect of the Lexington, Ky.-based ABFM, committed to advocacy, research, physician certification and the growth of primary care.

She will work closely with leaders of other specialty boards and family medicine groups. Assuming the chair-elect’s year-long duties in August, she will ascend to the chair proper the following year.

She was practically born to steer the board, said Dr. Ed Hill of Tupelo.

“She is eminently qualified to serve, more than just about anybody else, because of her experience and unique expertise,” said Hill, former American Medical Association president and recent World Medical Association board chairman. “And she has at least one character of leadership I believe is vital: She not only listens, but she also hears what you’re saying.

“I believe that’s why she is so loved and highly respected by her residents and students.”

Beebe, chair of family medicine since 2007, would like to spread the love by enlisting more residents and students, at least as many as she saw back in the 1980s when she completed her residency training at UMMC. But fewer and fewer medical students have opted for a family medicine career, one that is marked by a heavy patient load, stacks of paperwork and relatively low reimbursement rates.

“In 1984, 25 to 30 percent of the students here were going into family medicine, and the nationwide statistics were similar,” Beebe said. “Last year, only 10 percent chose family medicine here at this medical school, and that’s been true for the last several years.”

Incentives are on the way, however, including new federal health-care laws that increase Medicare payments for physicians in family medicine and some other specialties.

“I believe financial reforms are coming,” Beebe said.

Among Beebe’s endorsements for a career in family medicine are these: “Family physicians are the most recruited specialty, and that need is only going to increase. Also, there is nothing more rewarding that being a personal physician to a family for 30 or 40 years.

“There is no greater privilege.”