Yes, baby boomers are fond of recalling the good old days, when candy bars were a dime, kids played outside until after dark and you had a long-term relationship with a doctor who knew you by name and remembered all your ailments.
Now, candy bars cost a dollar or more and kids play is most often focused around a screen. However for some, that friendly community doctor is still just down the street. That is until Oct. 31, when Dr. Val Brown, Jr. retires, and along with him goes the official end of an era.
Dr. Brown’s small offices in a two-story medical office building just north of Via Christi St. Francis exudes familial charm. On any visit, a patient is sure to walk in and see someone they know, and if you don’t know anyone in the lobby, this is the kind of place where people struck up conversations anyway.
His is a practice that caters to the community, just like the practice of his father, Dr. Val Brown, Sr., who was around when “Negro” doctors took care of “Negro” patients, and both sides treated each other with mutual respect. Brown, Jr. grew up watching that kind of caring service community doctors gave their patients and, it’s the kind of practice he’s given his patients during more than 35 years as a practicing physician.
While corporate doctors cycle patients through, with barely more than a “hi” and a “bye,” Dr. Brown’s patients could count on him to pull up a stool and talk for a while. They’d talk about family, sports or whatever was on their mind, and Doc would join in the banter. They could expect Doc Brown to listen attentively to what ails them but they could also expect a firm talking to, especially if they hadn’t been following the doctor’s orders.
He was forceful, but caring. “You know you’ve got to cut back on that salt,” “You can’t keep gaining weight like this,” and “have you been exercising, like I told you,” he’d ask as he peered up from the chart with a not so happy look on his face.
“Trish (Dr. Brown’s wife) would say, “you shouldn’t talk to them like that,’” exclaimed Dr. Brown during our interview. “I told her, ‘they expect it. Especially if they’re messing up.’”
It was his tough but caring approach that got through to and helped save some of his toughest patients.
Last week, Dr. Brown mailed out notices of his retirement to more than 1000 patients. He counts nearly 500 to 600 of them as active patients who will have to find a new medical home. Beyond “oh no,” and “please don’t retire,” he says the question he’s hearing most often is “where do I find another doctor like you?”
“I don’t know anybody like me,” he says, even though the letter he mailed to patients does make a couple of recommendations for his patient’s future medical care, he agrees, his retirement reflects the end of an era for Wichita’s African-American community. Nearly 80% of his patients were African Americans, many of whom have aged with him.
His aging clients are accumulating illnesses and, as they age, they require more and more of his time. But it wasn’t his client base that finally made Dr. Brown decide to retire. He says he’s grown frustrated with the administrative requirements of being in private practice. The implementation of electronic records in 2013 was supposed to streamline that process, but only exasperated it, he says.
Failure to comply means a percentage reduction on already small Medicare payments for services. So he spends 40 hours a week seeing patients and another 40 handling their records and processing claims. So the increasing time on the job and, a wife who’s been retired since 2009, was enough to convince Brown it was time for a change.
He’s only retiring from private practice, he’ll continue to work in emergency rooms, something he’s done on and off for more than 20 years. He’ll also give more time to EC Tyree, a community health facility at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, where he’s the medical director.
“No, I’m not going to resume my private practice at E.C. Tyree,” Brown says. “That’s my church and I feel a certain loyalty to them.”
With his extra time, he’ll to spend more time with Trish, travel and pursue his hobbies that he says he’s largely ignored over the past two decades.
His daughter LaTrice “Trecy” Brown has been helping him out during his last few months at the office. She has a degree in Healthcare leadership and stepped in when he needed her, working as his receptionist, office assistant and medical assistant, after his staff members found new jobs in anticipation of his retirement. After the office closes, she will be available through Nov. 30 to take patient’s calls.
When his father retired from practice in 1995, the headline in the Wichita Eagle was “A Gentle Doctor Retires.”
That’s not this doctors headline. “Tell them, I did it for so long because, I had a passion about my practice, a passion about my patients and a passion about their health.”
“I’ve had a good run in this community. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”