Family doctors are in high demand — yet there are not nearly enough.  

Shortfalls are expected to be up to 50,000 family docs by 2025 and not just in rural areas, according to a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine . Enter Dr. Mark Higdon, who helped launch the Novant Health Family Medicine Residency Program  in July 2016 to help bring more family physicians into the health care system.  

The program started with six residents and now stands at 17. “Novant Health wants to lead in family medicine," Higdon said. “I believe in specialists. But we need innovators on the front lines to take care of families.”   

The 17 residents spend most of their time at the hospital during year one of the three-year program. They gradually shift over to clinics, where they begin to practice family medicine and establish relationships with patients. All residents work under the supervision of more experienced doctors.  

Dr. Cody Homistek and Dr. Sarah Barker are third-year residents selected by their peers as chief residents. Both chose family medicine because it allows them to get to know patients personally over time. “You have to be able to put yourself into a patient’s shoes,” said Barker.  

“You have to meet people where they are,” said Homistek. “Compassion is key.” And that compassion has to extend to every patient, she said, including those that don’t always follow medical advice. Compassion is one of the traits Higdon and his team look for during the interview process. Bedside manner matters a lot in family medicine.  

Higdon sounds like a proud father when talking about his residents: “Patients have gotten to know these new doctors in clinic for the past two years. We have patients who ask me if they can see Cody or Sarah or another resident instead. That’s the ultimate compliment.”  

Higdon places a priority on leading by example. He and his colleagues don’t shortchange the human side of medicine.  

Head and heart

So, what makes a great family doctor?   

As you might expect, Higdon’s answer has nothing to do with labs, tests or access to expensive diagnostic equipment. “I tell students I want to train doctors who can explain something complicated in simple terms,” he said. “I want someone who can explain to my mother – whom I love – why she needs to take her medicine.”   

Part of the program’s philosophy is that family doctors need to know about the business side of operating a medical clinic. So, residents have access to not just other physicians – but nurses, pharmacists, administrators, even the Novant Health security team.   

And the program focuses heavily on the patient experience. That covers much more than the doctor/patient interaction. “The patient experience starts in the parking lot,” Higdon said. A patient shouldn’t have elevated blood pressure when she gets to the office because it took her 20 minutes to find a parking spot.  

“The experience continues in the waiting room,” he added. “How are you greeted? How are your vitals taken? Is it apparent the team at your doctor’s office communicates with one another?”  

A well-trained family doctor cares about all of it.  

Something else innovative about Novant Health’s family physician residency: The program recognizes that residents deserve a healthy work/life balance. Higdon and his team encourage the residents to have a life away from work – and they allow them time to do it.  

“We do all we can to avoid burnout,” Higdon said.  

He hopes all his residents choose to stay with Novant Health at the end of residency. “Realistically, I know they all won’t,” he added. “But wherever they go, they’ve gotten great training. We see all populations here, our patients are very diverse. In our area, you can go from urban to rural in 20 minutes.”  

Novant Health family medicine residents get remarkable training. And they’re getting it from people who feel called to care for families – from cradle to grave, as the saying goes.  

 “The faculty here are good role models for medicine,” said Homistek. “And for life.”   

To schedule an appointment in the Novant Health Family Medicine Residency Clinic please call 704-316-5170 or 704-384-1775, Address: 19485 Old Jetton Road, Suite 100, Cornelius, NC 28031  

Photo caption, (L-R):  Drs. Mark Higdon, Cody Homistek and Sarah Barker.