A Doctor for the Family
words by Doris Cortes-Delgado / photographs by John Emerson
amily medicine was in the cards right from the start for Thomas Ortiz, MD, a 1981 graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS).
As a child, he was impressed by his family physician.
“I remember him coming to the house and giving us shots. I also remember the time I went to his office with a fractured foot and he set and casted it,” he says. “It always stuck with me how important he was to the family. I decided this is what I would do.”
But when Ortiz was a college student, his advisor and professor told him he would never make it to medical school. “That irritated me to no end because he wasn’t encouraging me even to try, so, in a way, that gave me more motivation, more desire to prove him wrong,” he remembers. But he also recalls a biology professor who was very supportive and encouraging. “Dream it,” she said. “Believe in yourself, study hard and you can achieve whatever you want.”
In the early days of medical school, Ortiz and several other students established the Boricua Health Organization — a student-based group that is still active at NJMS — to support Latino students thinking of medical careers and also to encourage the “culturally competent” delivery of healthcare to the community. That terminology did not exist then, he says, but “we put together community events and faculty seminars to sensitize everyone to the needs of the Latino community. We realized we weren’t producing enough Latino doctors to serve our community and we still aren’t.”
At the end of medical school, Ortiz met with the chairman of the Department of Medicine to discuss his career path. He recalls telling him that he planned to go into family medicine and the chair responded: “That’s like being half a doctor! You need to sub-specialize!” But Ortiz knew what he wanted to do and he stood firm in his decision, saying: “I want to be a doctor for the family. My community needs me.”
When Ortiz graduated, after completing a family medicine residency and becoming board certified, he opened his private practice. “When I started my own practice, initially it was largely pediatrics, including Ob/Gyn, but as the patients and I got older, my practice evolved. We developed our services to meet the needs of the community.”
Twenty-five years into his career, Ortiz has a booming practice in the North Ward of Newark. But it was just seven years ago that he made a major change that impacted the care of his patients and the community. He realized that when he referred patients for specialized care, it often created insurmountable transportation and time problems for the patients, resulting in half never seeing the specialist.
“This is bad medicine,” he said to himself.
So he went ahead and expanded his office building to accommodate specialists. “This provided greater access for North Newark residents to see specialists in their own neighborhood,” he explains.
Ortiz’s practice blossomed into The Forest Hill Medical Arts Center. “We see thousands of patients, many of them Latinos,” he says. The Center offers a range of specialties and services including physical therapy and a fitness suite where people from the community can work out for $25 a month. “Now my patients have access to a one-stop, whole-person care center right here in Newark,” he says proudly.
As a family doctor, Ortiz sees patients throughout their lifespan. “There are times when I act as a super social worker and a psychologist,” he explains. “Some complex medical issues are really psycho-social issues. So, we first treat the body, but also treat the mind and the spirit. If we do that, we are more successful and have more satisfied patients with superior outcomes.”
“In the Spanish language, we use the word ‘confianza,’ meaning trust,” Ortiz continues. “Communication is the key. If the patients have ‘confianza’ with you, they will believe in you and respond to your treatments and feel better.”
And the doctor always gives his patients “esperanza” or hope. “I never tell a patient there are no options. There is always something we can try,” he states.
Family practice, according to Ortiz, is highly cost effective, because family physicians provide acute care, manage chronic diseases, providing continuity of care, as well as putting a premium on prevention and health maintenance. “Keeping patients healthy and out of the hospital is very important to us,” he says. “More importantly, we are the patients’ advocates in this very complex medical system.”
What does the future hold? Universal healthcare coverage is high on Ortiz’s wish list for this country. “We recognize the need,” he says, “but managed care has failed. It’s time for a new financial model, one that puts the physicians more in charge.” For instance, he sees a need for a diabetes institute, but “while diabetes and obesity are epidemic in the Latino and other minority communities, the resources aren’t there. I need a nutritionist on staff, but the insurance companies don’t even recognize a diagnosis of obesity as a medical condition, so there’s no reimbursement.”
For those considering a career in medicine, Ortiz advises to plan carefully. “You should always think ahead because you’ll want a reasonable work schedule so you can have a decent lifestyle and a professionally satisfying practice,” he says. “Set goals and time lines. I still do that every day, every week. Learn to manage your time. Live large.”
Going into his pocket, Ortiz pulls out a Tiffany silver money holder that he carries all the time. “This was a gift from one of my patients,” he smiles. “She wanted to thank me for saving her life in the ICU a few years back. This clip will always remind me of her and the success we had in her case and her appreciation. This is what makes my job so satisfying.”
The 51-year-old physician sits back and says: “I’ve achieved more than I ever dreamed of achieving. I have 25 years of a good marriage and three good kids, all in college. I exercise and try to eat right and, thank God, I have no major diseases.
“I practice in the New York metropolitan area and serve my community well — exactly what I set out to do. I hoped to have a multi-specialty healthcare center and I wanted to be the boss. I was hoping it would be easier and faster, of course, but I think I’ve attained a certain level of success for myself, my family, and more importantly, for my community. My career has been rewarding and I wouldn’t do it any other way. I enjoy being known as ‘North Newark’s family physician,’” he concludes.