Dr. Andaleeb Shariff always knew she wanted to practice family medicine, and specifically rural family medicine. She is a first-generation Canadian who was raised in the greater Toronto area. Both her parents were family medicine physicians.
“I grew up with medicine, and when most kids might have been playing soccer, I was at my mom’s medical office because I wanted to be. Our home phones would be ringing at three o’clock in the morning for critical lab results and I used to try and jump to the phone just to hear the ‘hello, this is the lab calling’,” Dr. Shariff laughed.
Dr. Shariff attended college at McGill University in Montreal on a pre-med track and went on to medical school at The University of Limerick in Ireland. She explained that this is a common path for pre-med students in Canada. A large cohort of students attend college in Canada and medical school in Ireland. She selected the University of Limerick because of its emphasis on rural family medicine. Regardless of where she attended medical school, her plan was always to complete her residency training back in Canada. She completed her 3-year residency in family medicine at The University of Ottawa.
What is family medicine?
The terminology around types of medical practices can be confusing. Many may interchange the terms “primary care” and “family medicine.” A primary care physician (PCP) is an overarching term that refers to a physician who is the first source of care for an individual. A PCP provides comprehensive care to help you maintain your health. They coordinate care with medical specialists when needed.
A doctor can pursue different training paths to become a PCP. The most common paths are completing a residency in internal medicine to become an internist who treats only adults, a residency in pediatrics to become a pediatrician who only treats children, or a residency in family medicine to become a family medicine physician who treats patients of all ages. Geriatricians who care for elderly individuals as well as obstetricians and gynecologists who provide care to women are also classified as primary care physicians.
Family medicine is one type of primary care medicine where doctors care for individuals from infancy through old age. Dr. Shariff referred to it as “cradle to grave” medicine. “I always like to say I’m not great at anything, I’m just good at a lot of little things,” she explained about why she is perfect for family medicine.
“The emphasis in family medicine is on prevention and proactive treatment of diseases. A huge focus is schedules for preventative care because the ‘bread and butter’ of family medicine is to catch things before they become problems,” Dr. Shariff said. “Family medicine is a nice mix of preventative care, urgent or sick visits, and routine follow up for chronic conditions. One of the reasons that I chose family medicine is that there are always unexpected challenges and whether those happen day to day or patient to patient, that’s what kind of keeps it spicy.”
Landing in Connecticut
While living in Ireland, Dr. Shariff met her now husband. He works in cybersecurity and had a job in Switzerland while she completed her residency in Ottawa. Although she is fluent in English and French, she admitted that she was not willing to learn and practice medicine in German so relocating to Switzerland was not an option.
They investigated various opportunities that were viable for both careers and settled on Connecticut. They moved here not knowing anyone, but Dr. Shariff quickly fell in love with her job, the community and the region. Now it is home. When the couple is not busy with work, they can be found hiking the area trails with their infant and their dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback.
A growing practice
Dr. Shariff has been with Hartford HealthCare and practicing in Winsted since February 2019. She began as a solo practitioner, but the practice has grown substantially. It now includes three physicians, an advanced practice nurse and a physician assistant. There are also behavioral health providers embedded in the practice.
The practice relocated to a new facility in Winsted in January 2021. In addition to the family medicine practice, this new location houses an emergency room, physical therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation and laboratory services under one roof. There is also dedicated space for specialty practitioners—such as cardiology, neurology, general surgery, or obstetrics and gynecology—to rotate through on designated days. This provides individuals in the Northwest region access to resources they might not otherwise have.
The physical set up of the practice in close proximity to other medical resources facilitates the physicians’ ability to practice using a “care team model.” In this model, practitioners collaborate among themselves but also have access to resources outside their own practice. All providers share the same electronic medical record, so they are able to view each other’s care plans, notes and changes to medications. The communication between family medicine and medical specialty providers is very strong. They manage the patient’s medical problems side by side. This minimizes the need for patients to repeat their background and medical history with every new specialist; patients really appreciate it. Patients are also strongly encouraged to utilize My Chart, which is a version of their medical record just for them.
“It has really given patients autonomy over their own health and their own care,” Dr. Shariff said.
In addition to seeing patients at the Winsted office, Dr. Shariff serves as the regional medical director for the Northwest Region primary care practices for Hartford HealthCare Medical Group. She oversees the care given by other providers at the Winsted location and primary care offices in Litchfield, Torrington and Thomaston as well as a pediatric practice in Litchfield.
Dr. Shariff is very excited about the latest area of growth for the practice. It will serve as a practice site for the Quinnipiac University Frank H. Netter School of Medicine’s newly accredited rural family medicine residency program. The residency program is committed to improving the health of the communities it serves and addressing healthcare inequities through direct patient care, community outreach, health professions education and scholarly inquiry.
Dr. Shariff is thrilled to be training the next generation of family medicine providers. There continues to be a shortage of primary care providers nationally. This challenge occurs in their practice and is essentially one of supply and demand. Ideally, they would like to see patients with certain chronic conditions more frequently, but it just isn’t possible with the number of available providers. She reiterated that this is not a problem just in the Northwest corner of Connecticut, but across the country.
There are many factors contributing to the shortage of primary care providers but one issue is that primary care competes for medical students’ attention with many other options that may seem more glamorous or provide more instant gratification.
“Individuals who go into primary care need to have that commitment from an early time,” Dr. Shariff shared. “The appeal for primary care is not always there because results for patients are long term and not immediate. You need someone who is willing to be patient and fight the good fight with your patients to be successful in this profession. It is not always about the end result. It’s about the journey you take with your patients.”
So adding a family medicine training program is important to develop a pipeline of practitioners. Dr. Shariff and others hope that some of the residents who come through the program will decide to stay in the area to practice. This will provide additional resources for the residents in the Northwest Corner.
Margaret M. Burke, Pharm.D., BCPPS, is a freelance medical writer with more than 25 years of clinical pharmacy experience, including board certification as a pediatric pharmacotherapy specialist. She lives in Manchester.
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