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My Family Medicine Story

Joseph E. Scherger, MD, MPH, FAAFP


My family medicine story began in 1973 when, as a third year medical student at UCLA, I had the epiphany that I should become a family doctor. I previously thought I was destined for internal medicine and that I would do biomedical research. The emerging auto-immune diseases were my main interest. During my third year rotations, first in the emergency room at Harbor General Hospital, and later during obstetrics and pediatrics, I realized three things about myself. The first was that I could actually do things with my hands and was not just a cerebral person. The second was that I loved everything and did not want to give up any area of medicine. The third was that I was a people person and was more interested in their stories than the science behind their health problems.


In 1974, I joined AAFP and CAFP as a student member. It was a great time for the early specialty of what was then called Family Practice. The founders who so courageously transitioned General Practice to Family Practice were there to serve as role models. Tom Stern was the residency program director at Santa Monica. Buck Turner, Si Braumbaugh, Hugh Upton, among many others taught me how CAFP worked and how I could get involved. I even spoke before the CAFP House of Delegates in 1974 about preceptors in Family Practice.


That beginning sent me on a great career journey over 45 years and counting. I still feel young! I am still learning. I had the privilege of doing my residency at the University of Washington and got a Masters in Public Health so I could understand the health system beyond the exam room with patients.


Wanting to go where I was needed, I volunteered into the National Health Service Corps. My wife Carol and I wanted to return to California and we ended up in Dixon, an agricultural town in the Sacramento valley. We lived and started our family in the nearby college town of Davis. After two years of being a migrant health physician, I started a solo practice in Dixon that grew into a Family Medicine group of five physicians. We did OB and I was a “womb to tomb” family physician. A good day included a natural birth and later a death, usually at home. Liking even more variety, I spent 12 years teaching at UC Davis mostly inspiring medical students to become family physicians.


After 14 years in Dixon, I sought greater leadership opportunities and we wanted to move to San Diego. In 1992, I become Vice President of Primary Care Education at Sharp HealthCare, and started a Family Medicine Residency and served as its first director. Unfortunately, after four years Sharp started losing money and cutting programs, including the residency. I moved on to become the Chair of Family Medicine and Associate Dean for Primary Care at UC Irvine.


Like my previous job at Sharp, I thought these would be long-term positions but circumstances happen to change your journey. In 2001, I was recruited to become the founding dean at the new medicine school starting at Florida State University in Tallahassee. This was a great and intense opportunity but it did not work out and I was let go after 2 years. In 2003, Carol and I moved back to San Diego without a job. I had to start my career over!


My first career love is seeing patients, so that is what I did. Then, I started teaching again at UC San Diego. I had given my email to all my patients back in 1997 while at UC Irvine and became interested in new models of doing family medicine other than the brief office visit. I had time to explore this expertise further and in 2009 was recruited to start both a new model primary care practice and residency programs for Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. It was a dream job allowing me to use all the skills I had collected during my career journey.


As I soon complete ten years as Vice President for Primary Care at Eisenhower, I plan to give up administration and spend my early senior years just caring for my patients and teaching. In many ways the career journey is coming full circle. I love my patients here just like I did in Dixon. It is just that they and I am older!


No other specialty comes close to the experiences and satisfactions of being in Family Medicine. I am so blessed that I choose this career path. With my book, Lean and Fit, and my website,, I feel like I am being reborn in family medicine. I am blessed with a drive to write and I do not plan to slow down anytime soon.


I’ll write my story again at the 80th anniversary celebration of Family Medicine in California.


February 21, 2018