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Profiles Political Injection

Dr. Margaret S. Kendig Atwell '82

She windows of Western Berks Medical Associates are dark on this particular weekday afternoon. Inside, chairs are idle in a normally busy patient waiting room. The seemingly ceaseless flow of easy listening music can no longer be heard streaming from speakers. Even the parking lot is devoid of life and Dr. Margaret S. Kendig Atwell ’82 is nowhere to be found.

During the last week of April, Atwell, president of the Berks County Medical Society since January 2003, was exercising her right to protest to the government about what many doctors believe will eventually stop them from being able to practice medicine. "Skyrocketing malpractice insurance and inadequate reimbursement from healthcare plans are making it almost impossible for physicians to make a living," Atwell says.

In a statewide demonstration, doctors in Pennsylvania closed their offices for a week in order to draw attention to their issues. There were no picket lines, screaming protestors or television cameras. Just empty offices. Political protest and activism in general are things Atwell has been championing as president of the medical society. "Hopefully people will support us," she says. "We need them to call up their legislators in Harrisburg and let them know."

With doctors starting to move their practices out of Pennsylvania or retiring altogether, Atwell says something has to be done soon. "We’re in danger of losing our heart and brain surgeons. Obstetricians have stopped delivering babies. It’s not looking good."

However, if doctors become united on these important issues, something can be done. "We’re all just learning that we have to work with one voice and demonstrate some power in the legislature and Congress, because that’s how things get done."

Yet, by no means were physicians sitting at home with their feet up or hitting the golf course as part of the weeklong protest. Striking doctors across the state participated in a wide variety of community events such as blood drives, community forums and a voicing of support for certain political candidates.

"Our big activity was the blood drive but, as president, I also participated in every activity during the week including speaking to pre-med students at Albright, Penn State and Alvernia," she says. Atwell knew the protest could stir up some bad press as well. "We realized that some people wouldn’t understand our motives and we wanted them to know the whole thing is about providing the best possible care for our patients," she says.

In the desperate race to reduce malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania Atwell considers the first hurdle cleared. "I believe we got a lot of facts out to the public and increased public support of the issues," she says. Atwell and the Berks County Medical Society will continue to work week by week with people in Harrisburg in order for physicians around the state to finish the race once and for all.

Atwell is no stranger to a good challenge. Her family was already established when she decided to go back to school in 1979. "Trying to go back to school with two little kids was really difficult," she says. Initially her goal was to enter the nursing program but her performance on aptitude tests pointed to medical school as a better fit. Chuckling, she says, "I am thankful because I wouldn’t have made a good nurse."

After four years of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and residency at the Reading Hospital, Atwell found internal medicine to be the perfect fit. "I like the intense intellectual activity involved with internal medicine. I would much rather use my head to figure out what’s wrong with a patient than use a scalpel." About two years ago Atwell went into private practice as partner to Dr. Bernard Avella at Western Berks Medical Associates. "At the end of the day I really feel good about what I’ve accomplished with a lot of people," she says.

First hand experience running her own practice is what opened her eyes to the issues facing doctors today. So, when the board of directors asked her to take the position of president she couldn’t refuse. "I thought it would be an interesting experience which I could use to make a difference," she says.

Atwell hopes physicians will ban together. The alternative, she says, is that "soon, there aren’t going to be enough doctors in Pennsylvania. That just can’t happen."

-- Amy M. Buzinski ’03

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