LifePoint CMO Dr Lanny Copeland Talks to Physician Practice Magazine About Giving Back

November 11, 2011

“What does giving back mean to you?” As physicians, this is a question that we often overlook or take for granted. But the answer rings loud and clear to me: giving is part of the fabric of who I am and of my career as a physician.

But I am not a martyr. Giving is in the fabric of all physicians. The Hippocratic Oath states, “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings.” For me, personally, this mentality began long before taking this sacred oath.

I grew up on a small farm in Southern Indiana and was taught, as a child, the importance of giving and supporting those in need. It didn’t have to be financial support. It could be time, friendship or small acts of kindness. Little did I know that helping others was, ultimately, my calling.

When I was accepted to medical school, I was humbled and in wonder of how fortunate I was. I was being given the opportunity to pursue a profession that was beyond my dreams, and I knew that with hard work I would be in a privileged position to help others in a multitude of ways for the rest of my life.  And that is what I have worked to do ever since.

Throughout my career, giving back has meant many things to me. As a young physician running a small practice in rural Southwest Georgia, giving back meant helping those who others would not treat and who could not help themselves. I would see patients in my office who otherwise would only have access to emergency rooms. I developed relationships with them, learned what they needed and collected donations for vital items. I approached local organizations, church groups and volunteers to participate and was constantly inspired by the generosity of others.

As I gained more experience, I started using my professional skills more to give back to those in grave situations and began visiting third world countries. My first experience abroad was working in a mission hospital in Yemen in the 1970s. At the time, Yemen was the most medically underserved country in the world, according to the World Health Organization. I gained a whole new perspective on life and medicine during my time there and was able to connect with people and help them through horrifying situations.

In the 1980s, I was introduced to Physicians with Heart, a partnership between the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation and Heart to Heart International. Physicians with Heart was created to mobilize resources to improve health, provide medical education and foster the development of family medicine worldwide. I immediately plugged into the group and took two rewarding trips to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

In Azerbaijan, I worked in an orphanage. I treated young girls who had no stable medical attention and faced lives of struggle and solitude. They were in a constant battle to stay alive. In Uzbekistan, I helped teach local doctors how to treat the unique cases in their distressed country. In both places, I connected with many young doctors – some of whom I still keep in touch with today.

After more than 20 years, I departed from my background as a family physician to join the “corporate side” of medicine. I worried that, with this shift, my interaction with communities in need and the ability to volunteer my time practicing medicine might change.  I was wrong.

At the corporate level of medicine, the opportunities to give are many. I joined LifePoint Hospitals in 2007 as Chief Medical Officer for the hospital system, overseeing physicians in more than 50 non-urban facilities across the country.

In the last four years, I have been able not only to continue giving back to communities here in the U.S. and abroad personally, but I’ve also been able to create opportunities for other doctors and healthcare providers to respond to the call to give. 

On the heels of the devastating earthquake that plundered the island of Haiti in January 2010, I worked with LifePoint colleagues to create the LifePoint Disaster Relief Fund, which raised more than $110,000 to help Haitians in need of medical attention, basic living supplies and support to rebuild their lives. That February, I took my first trip to Haiti with Heart to Heart International to help treat patients in the aftermath of the disaster.

When I returned, I was met with overwhelming support from my LifePoint colleagues and physician peers. Healthcare providers from across the country began offering to participate in helping Haitians in need, and we organized a second trip to the tiny, ravaged nation in May. This experience helped us at LifePoint realize how we could expand our efforts beyond this one disaster, and the LifePoint Disaster Relief Fund will serve as a permanent vehicle to help not only the citizens of Haiti, but other communities in crisis – both domestic and abroad.

The way physicians, nurses and others across the LifePoint family have banded together to meet the needs of our communities and respond to crises around the world has been an amazing and eye-opening experience for me. It reminds me every day of that fundamental and critical obligation we have to our fellow humans.

As physicians, we are in a unique position to give back to our patients, our communities and those in need. We are leaders and generally recognized as esteemed members of our communities. We have resources and talents many other professions do not. With this position comes great responsibility. We must set an example, share our good fortune and expertise, and respond to our calling to give back.

We can do this in a number of ways.

On the most fundamental level, physicians can give back by listening. It is easy to get caught up in patient throughput, schedules and goals. But something so basic as taking a few extra minutes to really listen can mean so much to our patients and our practices. Empathy is a gift, and we must not forget that.

For new physicians, remember that giving back does not have to be through a financial contribution. Give blood. Serve on local boards. Organize a clothing drive. Donate your old medical books to third world countries. Volunteer with local nonprofits. The opportunities are endless.

For physicians with more experience, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, visit other countries and help communities across the world that are not as medically advanced as ours. There are dozens of organizations that coordinate volunteer trips, including Physicians with Heart, The Flying Doctors, Doctors without Boarders and Samaritan’s Purse.

I’ve made it a point to make giving a part of my life, and the rewards I’ve received and relationships I’ve built are far more valuable than anything I can do for someone else. It does not matter where you are or what type of medicine you practice. It’s an attitude. If we all weave giving into our lives, we are responding to our call as physicians in a fundamental and profound way.

I am grateful for being a physician. And I am grateful for the responsibilities that come with it.