With more medical school graduates choosing to be generalists, the nation's largest healthcare philanthropy wants to ensure there are enough teachers to groom the new crops of primary-care doctors.
To do that, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded $3.6 million to support the research and teaching of 15 generalists, who are junior faculty members at medical schools around the country.
The Princeton, N.J.-based foundation aims to foster the scholarly pursuit of generalist medicine with the grants, as well as raise the profile of primary-care doctors in academics.
Generalists specialize in family medicine, pediatrics or internal medicine.
For those junior faculty members struggling to establish themselves, the grants are an infusion of research dollars that can be hard to come by for nonspecialists.
"The big research dollars, for the most part, don't go to primary-care research," said Beth Barnet, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and a grant recipient. On July 1, Barnet will be promoted to associate professor.
Paid to the medical schools over four years, each $240,000 grant helps cover salary and research costs for the selected faculty members.
For Barnet, that means hiring a research assistant to help her explore whether school-based health centers meet the primary-care needs of teen-agers. Barnet, 40, is the medical director of a health center in a Baltimore public school for pregnant and parenting teen-agers.
"I don't think people truly understand what primary care is and how difficult primary care is to do well," Barnet said.
This is the fifth year for the foundation's Generalist Physician Faculty Scholars Program, which made its first award in 1993. The grant targets faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers.
Evan Charney, M.D., who directs the grant program, said between 70 and 80 medical schools nominated candidates for the grants. Both allopathic and osteopathic doctors are eligible.
These days, generalists are a hot commodity, Charney said. In March, the National Resident Matching Program reported that for the third consecutive year, more than half the country's medical school graduates would pursue a generalist specialty in their first year of residency training.
With the first of the four-year grants now finished, the foundation will be looking to evaluate how successful the program has been in encouraging leading generalist faculty members, said Charney, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts.
This year's faculty scholars include doctors who will study an assortment of topics. They include developing physician training programs on palliative care and communication with the dying and conducting a historical survey of physician attitudes toward the treatment of child sexual abuse.
Timothy Daaleman, D.O., an assistant professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, will use his grant to study the dynamic between religion, spirituality and medicine. "It's a little bit off the beaten path," said Daaleman, 37.
Recipient Thomas Gill, M.D., an assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine, is working with another doctor to study why people develop disabilities as they age. "This is the most difficult time in one's academic career to try to get established," said Gill, 35.
The grant has a practical side for Gill, too. Because it will cover part of his salary, he'll have more time for research away from his clinical work.
The foundation wants its grants to develop mentors who can serve as role models for students.