Divided by duty: While a doctor serves the country, the practice must still serve patients

By Karen Caffarini
http://www.ama-assn.org

Two days after Hurricane Gustav stormed through Louisiana, Col. Stephen Ulrich, MD, was at a National Guard base in Columbus, Ohio, wearing camouflage and flooded with paperwork. As the state surgeon for the Ohio guard, he got a call-up to review the medical records of 1,500 soldiers who would be helping with relief duties.

Meanwhile, about 55 miles east, the five other physicians in Dr. Ulrich’s family practice were trying to conduct business as usual in their Zanesville and New Lexington, Ohio, offices. But first there was some scrambling to make sure Dr. Ulrich’s patients were seen.

That wasn’t a new challenge for this practice. Dr. Ulrich has been called away twice before — once for three months, once for six. He served as a flight surgeon in Balad, Iraq, flying with aircraft crews, doing clinical work and flight physicals, and being “just a regular doctor.”

Tours of duty can take a toll, not just on doctors going to the war zone but also on those left behind. Both groups must work together to adequately plan for the absence and notify insurers, affiliated hospitals and others.

The emotional stress also extends to both groups. “You listen to the news and just pray he’s not in danger. We say a lot of prayers around here when he’s gone,” said Melody Field, a nurse practitioner for Dr. Ulrich.

This time, Dr. Ulrich spent only a few days in Columbus. As the soldiers left for Louisiana, he was back in his office.

When the National Guard calls a physician to duty in the Middle East, it provides several months’ notice to allow for working out a plan for the practice, contacting patients and making arrangements, said Maj. Randall Short, a Guard spokesman.

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