Dr. Deborah Clements overcame obstacles on her way to becoming a voice for family doctors in Kansas

November 22, 2011

By David Martin

Deborah Clements, MD

Family medicine called out to Deborah Clements, MD, at an early age. When she was a sophomore in high school, her mother was hurt in a serious car accident and spent a year in hospital care. The family doctor kept in touch with nightly phone calls. "Our family doc made all the difference in the world to us then," she says.

A professor and residency director in the Department of Family Medicine at KU Medical Center, Clements now serves as a voice for family doctors. In June, she was elected president of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, an education and advocacy group with more than 1,000 active members. She will work on issues at the national level, as well, as the chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians' Commission on Education.

As KAFP president, Clements will work to improve care in less populated areas. The state, Clements says, is doing a good job educating the family doctors of tomorrow, but she worries that graduates don't have enough places to complete their training. In a recent letter to the membership, Clements described the need for an additional residency program in a medium-sized Kansas community.

Clements is an advocate for a profession she joined relatively late in life - she did not begin medical school until she was 33. Clements says she had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. "But I was from a really very modest family," she says. "My parents didn't graduate from high school."

Born in Chicago, Clements and her family moved to a small town in southwestern Michigan when she was in the fifth grade. She did not let her humble origins prevent her from attending college. She studied biology at the University of Michigan with the intention of going to medical school. Her ambitions, however, were lowered by an undergraduate adviser who held a narrow view about what a med student looked like. You come from the wrong family, he told her. You aren't smart enough. You're a woman.

Clements put aside her dream, got married and started a family. She entered the workforce as a clerk at a health system in Omaha and eventually moved into information technology, such as it was at the time. "The first PC at that hospital was on my desk," she says. At the time she left, Clements was the director of compensation for an institution with 3,000 employees.

A nursing shortage led Clements into caregiving. Employees of the health system were offered free tuition to attend nursing school. The opportunity to move out from behind a desk appealed to Clements. Also, she had her family to consider. Clements was widowed at age 30. (She later remarried. Clements says is grateful for the support of her husband, Walt, and their children.)

But after one semester of nursing school, Clements received the encouragement to pursue her original plan. An adviser in the nursing school told Clements she was doing a lovely job but that her true calling may lie elsewhere. It was suggested that she apply to medical school.

Clements received her degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, the one medical school she sent an application. "I'm not sure how all that happened, but it was meant to be," she says.

Clements' nontraditional career path prepared her for current leadership roles. Thinking that she was behind in terms of academic credentials and gravitas, she became politically active toward end of her residency. Her residency director encouraged her to run for office through the American Academy of Family Physicians. She served as a delegate and, later, was the resident member of the academy's board of directors. "It was a view of organized medicine from a perspective that I think is so rare to be able to get that it made me a real advocate for the specialty pretty early on," she says.

Clements accepted a staff position with the AAFP, which is headquartered in Leawood, Kan., after she finished her residency. The job allowed her to practice when she wasn't traveling on academy business. She joined the School of Medicine in 2004.

Clements' recent achievements extend to her work as a faculty member at KUMC. This year, she received the Nason Family Award for Excellence in Family Medicine Education as well as the Rainbow Award, which students present to a physician they consider a "hero in medicine."

The students at KUMC know Clements to be a resourceful instructor. In 2010, she taught a class via Skype while working at a clinic in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. A breast cancer survivor, she once took a student and a resident to her chemotherapy treatment. "I love to watch the students as they move through the process and watch them at their points of discovery and be there to try to help them sort of internalize it and stay whole people in the process," she says.

As for the undergraduate adviser who failed to see Clements' potential, he received a graduation announcement from her when she completed medical school. In the accompanying note, she suggested to the adviser that he might need to rethink his approach. "I thought he should modify his talk," she says.

Last modified: Dec 30, 2011