Before he came to Buffalo for medical school, Dr. Andrew Symons got his bachelor’s degree in political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his master’s degree in marine biology at Long Island University and taught biology for five years at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan.
For almost a decade, the Brooklyn native has juggled a busy medical practice, a teaching schedule at the University at Buffalo and his roles as a husband and father – making quality time for all.
Symons, 49, of Williamsville, will be honored today as Family Doctor of the Year by the New York State Academy of Family Physicians – a professional association of 4,300 family doctors, residents and students – during an awards ceremony outside Albany.
He has been a mentor to UB medical students and teaches classes in early clinical education, professionalism and care for patients with disabilities. He often talks with students about the rewards of family medicine, and he is one of six doctor-teachers at the UB Family Medicine practice in the Town of Tonawanda. He also sees patients at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.
You started medical school late.
I came to Buffalo at the age of 35 and did my medical school education here. Early on, I met family physicians who were my teachers and it really influenced my decision to pursue family medicine.
I ended up doing my residency here. It allowed me to take care of patients regardless of how old they were, regardless of what their chronic condition was or their health maintenance needs. I enjoyed the fact that I got to know my patients for the long term, learn about their lives and how their lives affected their health. And I liked the variety, being able to see an infant in one room and then go to next room and see a 92-year-old patient living in the community and doing well, then go to the next room and freeze a wart off a teenager’s foot, go see a woman who’s pregnant and take care of her prenatal needs. I’m one of the few family doctors that still delivers babies.
What does a family doctor do?
Provide care for patients of all ages, regardless of gender, regardless of acute care or chronic illness, regardless of the organ system that’s involved. We manage chronic illness as well as acute diseases. We like to try to provide as much care as we’re comfortable with in our scope of practice. We provide coordination of care in the system when we are not alone able to provide that care. … Oftentimes, we like to see ourselves as a friend with special knowledge, a consultant.
What are the most common ailments that you treat?
Chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and COPD – or emphysema – which is smoking-related. Anxiety and depression. Then we have acute concerns like respiratory conditions, lower back pain, skin concerns – rashes and moles. And there’s health maintenance: Child visits and immunizations, screenings for things like breast cancer, colon cancer.
What’s your reaction to your award?
I couldn’t be recognized as family doctor of the year if I did not work at the family medicine office of the century. The nurses and staff in my office know all the patients by name. They create a warm, welcome environment for them.
And I can go around a room with my faculty and tell you how I learned to go to a hospital and visit my patients even if I was not actually on call. I learned that from one of my colleagues. I learned what it’s like to come in at 2 o’clock in the morning to deliver a baby even though you’re not on call, but this is the patient you’ve been following and you want to be there for the delivery because you also delivered the brother and you take care of the mother and the grandmother.
There is a shortage of several medical specialists in WNY, including primary care doctors. Why aren’t more students getting into these specialities?
It’s the biggest shortage. Part of it is financial. I can’t complain about my income but if you compare it to the other specialities, particularly the procedural specialties, family physicians are on the bottom of the rung when it comes to income. A lot of countries where the gap is narrower, more students go into family medicine.
Most training in medical school takes place in the hospital. Students are quickly enamored by the procedures and the excitement of being in an acute care facility, the excitement of being in an operating room. They spend relatively little time being trained in the offices of community family physicians. We try to remedy that in the first year of medical school.
How many patients do you see in a typical week?
Somewhere between 50 and 80 patients in the office. At the hospital, typically I see between 12 and 20 patients.
You say your family is supportive, including your wife, Einav Symons, principal at Kadima School of Buffalo, your son, Gilad, 11, and daughter, Shira, 9.
When I get home, my kids ask me what I’ve done to help people today. That brings it back to what it is to be a family doctor.