Beebe a driving force for more family physicians
By Gary Pettus
To her colleagues, students and patients, Dr. Diane K. Beebe, professor and chair of family medicine, is known as a down-to-earth professional who’s as discreet and reassuring as her white lab coat.
Dr. Diane K. Beebe, left, discusses a case with third-year medical student Jeremy White.
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 could have also 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 also been leader or a member of 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 University of Mississippi Medical Center and beyond.
She has the horses to do it, too, said Dr. James Keeton, UMMC’s 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 around 900,000 Mississippians are underserved in the area of primary care, or nearly a third of the population.
To wipe out these designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, the center reported, Mississippi needs at least 159 more primary care providers and as many as 430 more.
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. “People argue about how much it will cost to do it and how do we do it. But I believe we need to spend the money up front.”
Beebe, 54, will argue that point 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, along with such bodies as the Institute of Medicine.
“This allows us at University Medical Center to know what’s happening on the national level; that’s important, particularly in this era of health care change,” said Beebe, who assumed the year-long duties as chair-elect in August and will be officially elected chair the following year.
Beebe 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 president of the American Medical Association and recent board chairman of the World Medical Association.
“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. She is very outgoing and easy to communicate with.
“I believe that’s why she is so loved and highly respected by her residents and students.”
Beebe, chair of the Department 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.
“We have work to do,” she said.
“In 1984, 25 to 30 percent of the students here were going into family medicine, and the nationwide statistics were similar.
“Last year, only 10 percent chose family medicine here at this medical school, and that’s been true for the last several years.”
The reasons for the decline have prevailed for years. For one: The reimbursement rates for family physicians are lower compared to other specialties.
Then there is the exasperating math: Changes in Medicare during the 1990s multiplied the amount of paper work afflicting physicians, while subtracting the time they’re able to spend with each patient.
“The work load and reimbursement rates are challenges,” Beebe said.
“Family physicians make a good living, but in our health-care system the large reimbursements go to the sub-specialties and for procedures. Students graduate from medical schools thousands of dollars in debt.
“Many decide to go into a sub-specialty to be better able to pay this off.”
Incentives are on the way, however, including provisions in new federal health care laws that increase Medicare payments for physicians in family medicine and some other specialties.
“I would say I honestly believe we are blessed to make what we make,” Beebe said, “but I also believe there are financial reforms coming to increase reimbursements.”
Another lure is dangled by the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, which enlists rural students to study one of the primary care specialties. In exchange for their commitment to work as a physician in the state’s rural areas, it pays for their medical school.
But Beebe isn’t finished building her case. “Family physicians are the most recruited specialty,” she said, “and, as our population ages, that need is only going to increase with whatever happens to health-care reform.
“Also, you can mold your practice to whatever your community needs and to whatever you like to do: pediatrics, sports medicine, and on and on.
“Finally, there is nothing more rewarding than being a personal physician to a family for 30 or 40 years. There is no greater privilege.”
No one had to persuade Beebe. Once she decided to become a physician, no other kind of doctoring would do. “I entered medical school with the idea that being a doctor means taking care of most people for most conditions,” she said.
“When it comes to patients, most traditional family physicians are trained to handle 85 percent of whatever walks in. It doesn’t matter how old you are; it doesn’t matter what sex you are. We will see you.”
Beebe was still a little girl when she decided which route she’d take and how she’d drive it.
At age 5, she met her “Uncle” Bryant, a dashing friend of the family who was partial to Chevrolet’s iconic sports car.
“So I grew up riding in one,” Beebe said. “Back then I always said, ‘I’m going to do two things when I grow up: Be a doctor and drive a Corvette.’
“But I’m also a very practical person. I never would have bought one for myself.”
So Bill King, her husband of 25 years now, bought one for her decades later – a surprise, more than a dozen years ago, on her 40th birthday.
“I looked outside and saw this red Corvette; I thought Bill had rented it,” Beebe said.
She has since replaced it with a 2006 model flaunting a vanity license plate: DK BB.
But Beebe feared her car broadcast too much vanity.
For months, she wouldn’t even drive her first ’Vette to work.
“It just didn’t seem right,” she said. “I honestly had issues with how blessed I was compared to my patients, who have so many needs.
“Then the people in my department found out about the car and said, ‘Don’t be silly. If you enjoy it, drive it.’ And the patients think it’s fun. It’s now my symbol, I suppose.”
While Beebe knows why she took a liking to Corvettes, it’s not as clear to her why, at age 5 or so, she fell in love with the idea of becoming a doctor.
“But I guess I’m so stubborn that if I said I was going to medical school, I was going.”
She began saying it just a few years after she, an only child, was born in Chicago to parents who are now deceased: a stay-at-home mom and a father who was a businessman by profession. When she was 12, the family moved to Mississippi, where Beebe stuck to her precocious plan.
“If anyone challenged me when I said I was going to be a doctor, I got mad,” she said.
“It was, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute, especially for a girl.’
“My dad always said if I wanted to be a doctor, I’d be one. But when I finally went off to college to study pre-med, one of his associates said not many women get into medical school and maybe I should be a nurse instead.”
Although Beebe took that advice with a shaker of salt, she did get her first taste of medicine as a teenaged nurses’ aide: In Jackson, she signed up for St. Dominic Hospital’s original group of candy stripers.
Her big taste came several years later when she arrived at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, her obvious choice for an education and career. “I believed that medical school was something I would like,” said Beebe, who joined the faculty in 1987 after completing her family medicine residency, “and I wanted to stay in Mississippi.”
Dr. Robert Forbes, for one, is glad she did.
“Diane was a smart student who was dependable and worked hard,” said Forbes, one of Beebe’s professors and mentors in the Department of Family Medicine. “I was her teacher, but she became my boss.
“I’ve watched her at work as chairman of the department, and I wish I could confront people as well as she does. She is warm and friendly, but can be stern when she has to be.
“Now she is in this very impressive position with the family medicine board. I’m so proud of her. She is right on the leading edge.”
Or right on a double-edged sword, said Hill.
“This brings her prestige, but it also brings a tremendous amount of responsibility. Our primary care base is suffering, and it’s disgraceful, to be candid. We’re the richest country in the world, but we don’t have the primary care base that many other countries have. If we don’t rebuild that base, then we’ll never see costs or quality improve.”
Beebe said she welcomes the responsibility. And when that burden becomes a little too much, she can rely on one of her favorite past-times for relief: making jewelry, or taking trips with her husband, a retired registered nurse, to their beach house in Ocean Springs.
“Sand between my toes and the sound of the water lapping on the shore make the troubles of the week wash away,” she said.
Sometimes, they retreat to their getaway in a red Corvette, Beebe driving the speed limit, but mindful of the power at her command.