My Kind of Medicine: Elizabeth Warner, MD
When Dr. Ruth Hoppe talks about her patients, her eyes glow. This is the image Dr. Elizabeth Warner sees when she thinks of her most influential mentor. She also thinks about what a great communicator Ruth is and how she uses her talent for it to put people at ease. “She never opens her mouth without having the words well crafted and well thought out,” says Dr. Warner. “I thought how comforted I would be as a patient if my doctor talked to me that way.”
As an undergrad, Dr. Warner had an epiphany. While studying the brain in a psychology class for an international relations degree, it occurred to her that a career in medicine might be just what she wanted. Her inclination was further encouraged by a pathologist she met who had entered the field of medicine at the age of 30. Within a week she had a plan. “That was in October of 1991 and by January 2002, I was taking all of my premed courses. I never looked back.” By the time she was in medical school at Michigan State University, the influence of Dr. Hoppe, who currently serves as Governor for ACP’s Michigan chapter and her other mentors was all she needed to make up her mind. “My decision to go into internal medicine was in part driven by my own tendencies toward detail and comprehensive understanding and part by interacting with practicing physicians,” she says. “I saw how they dealt with patients—to me they were examples of excellent professionalism. I knew I wanted to be able to do the same thing. That’s how I knew I was a primary care gal.”
Dr. Warner works for Bronson Healthcare Group, an award-winning practice system serving southwest Michigan and northern Indiana. She shares a practice with three other partners in Kalamazoo, MI. It is a good fit for Dr. Warner, even though there are times when she has to give a little more than usual, such as a week in July when one partner had an emergency appendectomy and the two others were out on scheduled vacation. But weathering these temporary bumps is a small sacrifice for such a rewarding career, according to Dr. Warner. She is thrilled by the flexibility her career allows her and says it’s this flexibility that gives her the chance to spend time with her family and to pursue her many interests.
A conversation with Dr. Warner reveals an infectious enthusiasm and compassionate warmth. In the face of a disappointment, she is able to rebound and turn it around, as she did once in her first six months of practice after a humbling experience with a patient. The patient had a foot ulcer that Dr. Warner had missed in its early stages. The condition worsened and grew infected. After being successfully treated by a specialist, the patient returned to Dr. Warner, upset and wanting an explanation. “This was one of my more challenging moments—I apologized over and over— I just said ‘I messed up and I’m sorry,’” she says. “He’s still my patient today. I think he is because I was honest with him. I am grateful to be his internist. To be able to be involved in people’s lives is a reward I never take for granted.”
A Passion for Progress
The condition and challenges of the U.S. health care system are well known to many, and while anyone can say they “stand” for reform, few can say they do something to actively promote it. Dr. Warner is a full participant in life and channels her positive energy in many ways—as a mother of two boys, as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society, and now as a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, a national organization dedicated to the right to high quality health care for all. She is new to the organization, but no less informed about the issues, which she struggles with first hand every day. “Every hour of every day I dance with insurance companies—finding the medicine they like, the code for the test I think is medically necessary and that they think is justifiable for payment,” she says. “I love my job but this is the aspect which makes it the most difficult,” she admits.
Another topic she is passionate about is the obesity epidemic. “So much of the medical care I provide now relates to the treatment of obesity,” she says, “and I see how it affects the health of my patients. I would really like to write a book about it.” She plans on continuing her career as an internist. “This is a wonderful career. It gives me the luxury of balancing my professional life with my family life and it gives me that quality of patient interaction that I absolutely require.”
At the age of 38, Dr. Warner’s quest to be the skilled communicator like her mentor Dr. Hoppe hasn’t waned. She has made a misstep or two along the way, but she has also made triumphs as well. Not too long ago, a longtime patient of Dr. Warner’s was diagnosed with early prostate cancer. The wife of the patient, also a longtime patient of Dr. Warner’s, had just finished follow-up treatment for a surgical procedure. It was a difficult time for the couple, and Dr. Warner, who by then was not only the couple’s physician but also a trusted friend of sorts, felt she needed to give it her all. “I tried my best to do everything within my power to do everything I could for them, explaining everything and getting them the treatment and referrals they needed,” she explains. “And while I won’t ever have that drama of “curing” someone, that’s not really life. For me, the icing on the cake is doing what I can to maximize someone's health over the long term and forge a relationship with my patients in education, support and treatment strategies to help them find their healthy path." After things settled down after the rush of activity surrounding the man’s diagnosis and treatment, the wife contacted Dr. Warner. "Thank you for the referrals, thank you for listening, thank you for everything, thank you for being our doctor," she said.
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