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Do-gooders--and proud of it


Many doctors are happy to give back to the community. But some are less generous with their time and money.


Getting Personal

Do-gooders—and proud of it

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Choose article section... Getting down to dollars and sense Are you involved in community service activities?The monetary value of doctors' largest charitable gift in 1999Some charities receiving physician donations

Many doctors are happy to give back to the community. But some are less generous with their time and money.

By Anne L. Finger,
Senior Editor

Every day since 1962, family practitioner Olin T. Smyth Jr. has measured and recorded the high and low temperature and precipitation in his hometown of Cleburne, TX. Each month, he sends reports to the weather bureau in Fort Worth. He also writes a monthly column about the weather for his local newspaper. "I was told years ago that if I ever wanted to run for public office, this work would help," says Smyth. "Everyone wants to know about the weather."

Smyth is one of thousands of physicians throughout the country who, in addition to their long workweeks, contribute time, money, and expertise to their communities.

About 42 percent of all physicians fall into this category, according to our lifestyle survey. That's not quite up to the proportion of American adults who do unpaid work: Such activities reached an all time high of 56 percent in 1998, according to the nonprofit organization Independent Sector, which tracks volunteerism.

Our survey found that roughly the same percentages of male and female doctors participate in community service activities. Physicians who are married or living with a mate are more likely than their unattached counterparts to spend their free time helping others. Hindus (51 percent) and Protestants (47 percent) are more active than physicians from other religious groups. About one in four (26 percent) physicians with no religious affiliation are involved in community service.

Doctors in their 50s are the most likely (48 percent) to use their skills and talents to help their communities, perhaps because they're unlikely to have young children at home and their workweeks are no longer so punishing. Not surprisingly, the youngest physicians are least likely to be active (33 percent).

Among the specialties, FPs/GPs and ophthalmologists, at 47 percent, are most likely to get involved; followed closely by psychiatrists (46 percent) and orthopedic surgeons (44 percent). Anesthesiologists are, by and large, passive: Their 27 percent involvement registered at the low end of the specialty scale.

What kinds of community efforts attract physicians? Churches and health-related activities head the list. Interestingly, the percentage of physicians who declare themselves active in their communities (42 percent) is very close to the percentage who view religion as very important to their daily lives (40 percent). Other volunteer activities that physicians are drawn to include school boards, soccer coaching, and scouting. One doctor hosts a TV talk show. Another helped organize the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. A pathologist lends his expertise to a local zoo, interpreting biopsies performed on apes and other big mammals. Stella Staley, an internist in Lexington, KY, spends most weekends visiting nursing homes with her "therapy dog," a 9-year-old black Labrador retriever named Pepper, who's been known to elicit belly laughs from previously unresponsive patients.

Roderick C. Haff has his own way of brightening people's lives. Twenty-four years ago, at age 40, the general surgeon from San Antonio began taking lessons to hone his tenor voice. Since then, he has sung the lead role in 15 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the Lyric Opera of San Antonio. "It's an avocation," he says, "and a passion." He also sings in a local choral society and his church choir. Haff acknowledges that careful scheduling is needed to keep him away from ER call while he's taking curtain calls. Eventually, of course, he'll have to retire from surgery, but he plans to keep singing "if the voice holds out."

Then there are activist physicians whose resumes bring to mind the words "pillar of the community." Paul A. Whitlock Jr., a general surgeon in Statesboro, GA, is such a doctor. He's been president and chairman of the board of the local chamber of commerce, active in the Rotary club, an adviser for the Boy Scouts, president of his local medical society, president of the hospital medical staff, director and founder of Eagle Bank, and a deacon in his church. As deacon, he traveled to Ghana in 1996. "We did C-sections under local anesthetics, and saw all sorts of interesting and terrible pathology," he recalls. He and his son, who accompanied him, both contracted malaria.

Recently, Whitlock helped renovate Statesboro's antiquated local hospital. "We used to have to bring our own anesthesia or volume respirator when we operated," he recalls. "Now the hospital is state-of-the-art."

How has he been able to devote so much time to these activities—and why has he done so? Whitlock's response echoes the sentiment of most physician volunteers. "You make time for what you want to do," he says. "The community has contributed a great deal to me and my family. I've enjoyed giving something back."

Getting down to dollars and sense

If physicians are less likely to participate in community service activities than other Americans, how do they measure up in terms of charitable giving?

In 1998, the average American household contributed $1,075 to charity, an amount that represented 2 percent of household income, according to Independent Sector. Medical Economics asked physicians a somewhat different question: What was the monetary value of the largest charitable gift you made last year? The average of the amounts reported was $4,079.

Houses of worship and other religious organizations were favored recipients; the largest single gift, to a church, amounted to $320,000, and numerous gifts of more than $15,000 were made to churches. Hospitals, educational groups, and community organizations also received five- and six-figure contributions from physicians.

One physician donated $250,000 to a school of medicine; another gave $170,000 to a local hospital; a third gave $100,000 to a high school scholarship fund. Other noteworthy gifts included $50,000 to an adoption agency program, $30,000 to an AIDS dinner, $50,000 to the National Rifle Association, and $20,000 to an animal sanctuary.

Men donated considerably more than women: an average of $4,315, compared with $3,027. Married doctors gave substantially more than others, and physicians aged 60 and older, who have presumably amassed the most wealth, were the most generous: $4,882, on average. The next highest average was $4,675, given by those aged 40 to 49.

As might be expected, the youngest gave the least—$2,499. Ob/gyns and radiologists were the most generous, giving an average of $5,786 and $5,707, respectively. Pediatricians, averaging $2,171, were most watchful of their wallets.

Protestant physicians averaged $5,127 for their largest gift, followed by Catholic doctors at $3,861, and Jewish physicians at $3,247. Hindu physicians gave an average of $2,110, and physicians with no religious affiliation gave the least, at $1,340. (The sample of Islamic physicians was statistically too small to include.)

Are you involved in community service activities?


The monetary value of doctors' largest charitable gift in 1999


Some charities receiving physician donations

Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Make-a-Wish Foundation
National Kidney Foundation
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
National Public Radio
National Rifle Association
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Planned Parenthood
Rotary International
The Salvation Army
Save the Children Federation
Southern Poverty Law Center
United Fund
United Way of America


. Do-gooders--and proud of it. Medical Economics 2000;19:171.

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