20 Questions: Tyler Edwards, MD, Family Medicine

Dr. Tyler Edwards is an attending physician who specializes in family medicine, practicing for almost 15 years. In addition to his duties as a family physician, Dr. Edwards also works as a hospitalist at Frisbie Memorial Hospital, the same hospital in which his outpatient practice is affiliated. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, he matriculated at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, subsequently earning his M.D. degree in 1999. He thereupon moved to Ogden, Utah, to complete his McKay-Dee Family Medicine Residency program, which lasted three years. Dr. Edwards has been married for 18 years and has four children. As a keen advocate for exercise, he enjoys physical, outdoor activities, such as cross-country skiing, running, swimming, and hiking.
When did you first decide to become a physician? Why?
I went to college undecided, but always kind of knew I was interested in science, and to some degree, math. And as I was there, I pretty quickly realized that even though I really enjoyed learning about biology, biochemistry, chemistry, and similar subjects, I didn’t think I wanted to work in a lab; I was more interested in working with people. I had a roommate who said that he wanted to go to medical school, and I eventually thought, “Boy, that sounds like something I want to do,” so I changed my major to biochemistry, sort of with a slant of planning to go to medical school, thinking that as a fallback, I could do something else with the degree. I changed my focus, and I started doing more stuff—a little bit of volunteering, hospital summer internships, and other things which exposed me more to medicine. It became more clear that [medicine] was what I wanted to do.
How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
I pretty much decided based on the state. I was a Connecticut resident, and I knew it was going to be difficult to get into medical school—I also knew it was going to be very expensive. The University of Connecticut had a good reputation, and it was much less expensive to go there than going somewhere else. I thought it would help my chances of getting in if I went in as early-decision, so I enrolled and eventually got in. The early-decision program was an early-acceptance program, so I never even thought about or really looked into applying anywhere else when I was accepted [to the University of Connecticut].
What surprised you the most about your medical studies?
The biggest thing I thought was how you get sort of awed by medicine and medical science before you go into training, and I thought that it was all black and white and that everything had already been figured out; you just had to learn it. Then you get into the training, and you realize how much is not black and white—how much is not super straightforward and how much room there is still for the art of medicine.
Why did you decide to specialize in family medicine?
I like family medicine for a couple reasons. Every time I did a rotation, I found the different specialties interesting, but I also found that I really enjoyed the variety and the challenge of doing a bit of everything, which would help keep things interesting for me. I also knew there was a lot of flexibility within family medicine with what you could do with the training; you can practice just about anywhere, whether it’s small town or a big city. Also, there are a lot of things you could branch off of from family practice, such as inpatient medicine, outpatient medicine, and emergency medicine.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still specialize in family medicine? Why or why not?
I would! I think, for me, it has worked out great. I’m happy with what I’m doing, I’m happy with the training I received, and I think I’ve really used my medical degree in a way that works well for me—I hope it stays that way. I’m glad I did it, but I worry a little bit about the future of the way that medicine is gradually becoming, which is more specialized. It’s harder for people to have a wide-ranging practice.
Has being a family physician met your expectations? Why or why not?
Yes, I think it really has. I enjoy the fact that I get to do outpatient practice and inpatient practice. In addition to taking care of very sick patients, I enjoy the fact that I get to take care of people who are well and help keep them well.
What do you like most about being a family physician?
I think it’s probably the variety of the practice. In my outpatient clinic, I see young babies that are healthy and older patients that have a variety of medical problems. I can also be in the inpatient world, taking care of patients as they’re going through the dying process and struggling with really serious illnesses. I think the other thing that’s fun is the relationships with patients and families over time. Being in practice for almost 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of patients for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of families—sometimes multiple generations of the same family. It’s fun getting to know them in a personal way and help them with their healthcare.
What do you like least about being a family physician?
Unfortunately, the documentation requirements and paperwork part of medicine can almost interfere with the job, which is probably the biggest part that takes away from the satisfaction you get day-to-day. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it helps me feel like I’m taking better care of my patients, which is frustrating. I’m thinking and hoping that it’s in its infancy, meaning that while it feels inefficient now, I’m hoping that it pays off over time, but getting to that point is a slow process.
Describe a typical day at work—walk me through a day in your shoes.
In the outpatient clinic, I walk in right at 8:00-8:05 with my first patient waiting, and I’m basically busy seeing patients all day. Each visit takes a while; I tend to spend a long time with my patients because I’m a little bit of a talker, and if my patients are talkers as well, the visits can go for a while. I’ll see a variety of all ages—about 25% of the practice is pediatric and the rest are adults, slanting towards older patients. My day is generally one visit after another. It can be anything from seeing patients for physical exams to patients that are acutely or chronically ill. When I can, I try to get paperwork done in-between patients, so I hardly find time to have lunch. I’m usually in the office until 6:00 on average, some days earlier and some days later, doing paperwork at the end of the day for an hour or so after my last patient.
On average, how many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I probably work pretty close to 50 hours a week. It’s variable—some weeks it’s 40 hours and some weeks it’s 70 hours or more. For sleep, I try to get at least seven hours a night—that’s my goal. Some nights I get more, and some nights I get less, but seven hours is what I aim for, except for when I’m working a nightshift at the hospital. I try to make sure that I take my four weeks of vacation every year, sometimes taking a couple of extra days here and there.
Do you feel you have enough time to spend with your family? Why or why not?
Overall, I would say yes. Sometimes I wish it was more, but the good thing for me is that when I’m [at home], I’m there, which is the way I’ve struck the balance. Even though I work really hard, when I’m home, I like to think I’m pretty focused on my family, giving them my attention and making sure I’m there for them. At this stage in the game, with young kids, I don’t do a lot otherwise, personally, for my own self.
How do you balance work and your hobbies?
It’s difficult; I do sometimes wish I had a little more personal time. I try my best to realize that it is important to have some personal time and to take it when I can.
Do you feel that you are adequately compensated?
Yes, I do. I think that I’m paid pretty well overall for what I do and that I live a nice lifestyle. I think [my compensation] is fair.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a strain? Please explain.
For me, it wasn’t too bad. I think it made a huge difference going to the University of Connecticut. I had probably half—or in some instances less than half—of the loans that some of my colleagues did. It definitely took a long time to pay [the loans] back; it’s frustrating at first. It seems so hard to make a dent it in it when you’re finishing your training, having a family, buying a house, and trying to do everything else. Having to deal with a significant loan payment on the side is tough, but I was able to make it work. I did some moonlighting during my residency, which helped a lot; I was able to make some payments on my student loans, including my wife’s. There is some strain to a degree, but [paying the loans back] wasn’t onerous, and I know a lot of people who had it work for them as well.
In your position now, knowing what you do, what would you say to yourself back when you started your medical career?
I don’t think I would do anything differently than what I did then, but I think would try to remind myself, “You want to do this. You want to take as good of care as you can of your patients.” It’s a privilege to help take care of patients and share the really serious problems that they’re having, including the life decisions that go with it; it’s a big responsibility, which makes it challenging and also really satisfying. When I got tired or frustrated by paperwork or different distractions, I would tell myself to try to remember the parts of medicine to enjoy; those parts are still there, and they’re still the best parts of the job.
What information/advice do you wish you had known prior to beginning medical school?
It’s smart to keep your loans as low as possible because it’s hard to pay everything off. Again, for me, it ended up working out, but it’s still important to try to keep your school loans at a really small level. I’m overall very fortunate the way that everything worked out; I don’t think there’s a lot that I would tell myself, “Oh, be careful of this,” or “Do this differently.” I think always believing in yourself as you’re going through [schooling] is important. There are times in residency and in training when medicine can be intimidating. You can sometimes feel like the lowest man on the totem pole, either as a medical student or a resident, and occasionally you can feel dumb or inadequate. You can also sometimes run into other providers that will be negative, but you’ll always want to remind yourself that everyone is learning and that it’s OK to learn and go through the process; everyone was there at some time. It’s good to be the person who’s not afraid to ask questions and know that you don’t know everything. If anything, in my opinion, it can be dangerous to be the person that shies away from asking questions, not admitting when they don’t know or being afraid to bother a specialist.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem with healthcare today? Please explain.
I think probably the biggest problem is the documentation and red-tape issues that you deal with when you’re taking care of patients. It’s frustrating for providers, it’s frustrating for patients, it adds a lot of inefficiency to the system, and I don’t think that it really helps our healthcare system be any better. It gets more challenging to take care of my patient population because of how much more time is spent on [the documentation] side of things.
Where do you see family medicine in five years?
I think family medicine is still in a really good place. I think that if you go through a good training program in family practice, you have really valuable skills. There’s still a ton of medicine that’s art, that’s providing comfort, and that’s being a good communicator with patients and having them feel comfortable with you. I think there’s a lot that comes from the variety of learning how to care for people of all ages in lots of different settings, which really helps you to be a good doctor to all of them. I think that going to sort of a “niche specialty” world is not always in the best interest of patients and their families. I see [family medicine] hopefully continuing to be a really viable field in something that patients will continue to seek good family doctors for their care in the future.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I’ve got four kids, so most of my volunteer work, at this point, stems around them. I also help out in committees at the hospital, but most of what I do is helping get involved with my kids’ activities, which, for my family, ends up being a lot of sports stuff—I’m now the president of the local travel soccer club. I like the idea of someday doing [volunteer work] in more of a general, community sense, but for now, it’s family-focused.
What’s your advice for students pursuing a career as a physician?
Occasionally, you can hear doctors and other people be negative about medicine as a career, sometimes saying, “I’m not sure if you should want to be a doctor at this point; the cost of the education is so high and dealing with insurance companies and red tape isn’t all worth it. You’re also probably going to get sued.” I would say that medicine is still really fun, challenging, interesting, and satisfying—that part has not gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. Those parts have made me be glad for what I’m doing; it’s hard for me to imagine too many more rewarding careers than medicine. If someone has the passion, they shouldn’t let [the negatives] take them away from pursuing that goal.
About the Author
Thomas Richards is a high school student who is aspiring to become a physician. He lives in New Hampshire and loves spending time outside. He is an avid soccer player, so you can often find him practicing his skills when the weather is nice. Some of his other hobbies include exercising, biking, and reading.