Residency program produces top doctors

Some come to learn, stay to live
Herald Salinas Bureau

Dr. Minerva Perez-Lopez is back where she started.

Born at Natividad Medical Center and raised in East Salinas, Perez-Lopez said she always knew she’d be back even after leaving the area for a decade to go to college and work in Minnesota, then attend medical school at Brown University. Despite the status and opportunities an Ivy League education offered, the 36-year-old said her goal was always to return to Alisal.

Sure enough, Perez-Lopez returned to Natividad to complete her residency and is now a family practice physician at the local public hospital, where she works in labor and delivery. By the end of next year, Perez-Lopez is planning to be one of four doctors starting up a brand new practice, the Natividad Medical Group, at the hospital’s Professional Plaza.

“It looks like I’m here to stay,” she said. “I love this community.”

Perez-Lopez is one of eight former Natividad residents who practice there. They are carrying on a long-standing tradition at Natividad, which has trained nearly 200 doctors through its family practice residency program and provided a steady supply of physicians to the Central Coast.

Because of the high cost of living, it can be difficult to recruit doctors to the area, according to Dr. Gary Gray, director of Natividad’s residency program. But Gray said many young doctors who complete their residency there end up staying in the area.

Currently, there are 48 former Natividad residents practicing in Monterey County, 19 in
Santa Cruz County and two in San Benito County. Other former residents have moved on to achieve national success, such as Dr. David Rutstein, the chief clinical officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Health Services Corps.

Begun in 1975, the residency program is the only one of its kind between San Jose and Santa Barbara, said Gray. Affiliated with the University of California-San Francisco’s School of Medicine, the program accepts eight new residents each year. They must complete three years of training to be certified by the American Board of Family Practice.

Gray said the program receives about 250 applications each year and about 100 candidates are interviewed during the selection process.

He said the program offers residents a valuable opportunity to learn in a busy, dynamic hospital environment that he called “clinically and culturally rich.”

“A county hospital in a place like Salinas is an ideal place to train family doctors,” he said. “The residents’ experience is very direct and hands-on.”

Gray said Natividad’s patient base is largely Latino and underserved, and many patients have rarely or never received medical care. As a result, many patients’ illnesses, such as diabetes, have progressed further than normal, allowing the resident physicians a unique chance to observe and treat them at more advanced stages.

First-year resident Robert Fernandez, a Dallas native, said the opportunity to serve a large, needy Latino population was one of the main reasons he applied for Natividad’s program after graduating from medical school at Texas Southern University. Originally interested in a surgical career, Fernandez said he decided to pursue family medicine instead and Natividad’s training program was one of the best.

So far, he said, his experience has been everything he expected.

“They do a great job of setting our expectations,” Fernandez said.

Perez-Lopez said the program is “very hard, but when you’re finished, you will have developed the skills” to be a successful physician.

In turn, Natividad and the entire community also benefit from the program, said Dr. Marc Tunzi, Natividad’s chief of staff and former residency program director.

Tunzi said Natividad’s status as a teaching hospital encourages inquiry and staff development, and helps recruit top-notch medical staff besides physicians.

He also pointed to successful partnerships forged with community health-care providers such as Clinica de Salud.

Residency programs “are still one of the ways that county hospitals are able to provide direct physician access to patients,” Tunzi said. “More public health system physicians come from Natividad than anywhere else. This program has impacted the medical community beyond these walls.”

Natividad and the county Health Department recently extended an agreement for the residency and medical student education programs for five years through 2012. The agreement governs the terms of resident physician services provided in out-patient clinics such as the Laurel Family Practice Clinic located on the hospital’s campus, the Alisal Health Center and the Seaside Family Health Center where Natividad’s residents learn.

For Perez-Lopez, learning and practicing at Natividad is an opportunity to give back to her hometown, where her immediate and extended family and friends live. And the hospital where she was born and now helps deliver the area’s newest citizens is still giving back to her, too.

Three years ago, she gave birth to her own son.

At Natividad.

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