Family Physician Making a Difference in LA

Determined to change lives and promote healthy behaviors to reduce chronic disease, a woman born and raised in Los Angeles became a physician and set out to practice in the area, working with one of the largest federally qualified health centers in the United States. AMN Healthcare made it happen.

“I wanted to serve my community,” said Maria Teresa Sanchez, MD, who now is a family medicine physician at AltaMed in Pasadena, California. “My interest is in helping patients learn how to prevent serious illnesses.”

Sanchez came from humble beginnings. Her mother grew up in the housing projects in East Los Angeles, and her grandparents were migrant workers in Texas and the Central Valley of California before settling in East Los Angeles.

“It was because of my grandparents that I was drawn to helping the AltaMed community,” she said.

Sanchez started out pursuing a career in public health, obtaining a master’s degree in health science from the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. While she loved the idea of prevention, she found much of the work was research based. For instance, she studied how Hispanic mothers were preparing meals and feeding their families, but she did not have the opportunity to teach them healthier ways.

“I gathered data but was not allowed to provide education,” Sanchez said.

Becoming a family medicine physician

Sanchez missed working with people and having the opportunity to improve individuals’ lives. She decided to become a physician in primary care. She completed prerequisites at Johns Hopkins and began medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

While Chicago will always hold a special place in her heart, she yearned to return to Southern California and be closer to her parents. Sanchez completed her residency in family medicine at Adventist Health Glendale, just north of Los Angeles.

“I knew a residency in a place I wanted to settle would help me become familiar with and develop relationships with specialists,” she said.

Sanchez chose to become a family medicine physician because she wanted to practice in an outpatient setting and take care of people across the lifespan, from children to older adults.

“I wanted to provide healthcare to people with limited access,” she said.

Joining AltaMed

With a plethora of available physician jobs in Los Angeles, Sanchez investigated different settings and talked with friends about possible work placements. One of them mentioned AltaMed, a community health network. When Sanchez checked it out, she found a location about five minutes from where she lives.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It was the only place I applied to, because I heard good things, and it was close to home. I liked the motto of ‘Treating every patient like family.’”

AltaMed began as the East LA Barrio Free Clinic more than five decades ago. Today, it serves nearly 400,000 patients annually in the metropolitan Los Angeles area. A large percentage of the organization’s patients are Hispanic. AltaMed physicians take responsibility for their patients and lead a team of health professionals.

Sanchez speaks Spanish and can communicate with patients in their native language. She also understands the culture.

Later on, Sanchez found out that her paternal grandmother and aunt were involved in founding the original clinic.

“For me, everything aligned,” she said.

Working with a physician recruiter

Unfamiliar with the hiring and interviewing process for physician jobs, Sanchez had started working with Lance B., a recruiter at AMN Healthcare. He helped her with the application; explained retirement packages and benefits, including student loan forgiveness; and coordinated interviews for her.

“It was awesome working with him,” Sanchez recalled. “This was my first real job, and I really did not understand a lot of the process. He was so patient and always available. He made me feel like I had someone on my side. He had my back the whole way and made the process super easy.”

Making a difference in her community

Sanchez was the first in her residency class to secure a job, but not just any physician job. She enjoys what she is doing and that she can practice medicine in a rewarding fashion. She works four 10-hour days, giving her a three-day weekend. She has recruited colleagues to work at AltaMed, even with all of the available physician jobs in Los Angeles.

“Mine is a dream job,” she said. “I am so happy where I am working and what I am doing.”

Many of Sanchez’s patients have never seen a physician before, or at least not one in the United States. As part of her practice, she talks with her patients about diet, stress management, activity levels and social determinants of health. She can refer to AltaMed’s nutritionists or diabetes prevention and management programs. Having enough time with each patient sometimes presents challenges, but she makes it work.

“I am motivated by interactions with patients,” Sanchez said. “This is a population that needs physicians who are dedicated to prevention and helping the vulnerable and less served, who are facing a lot more health disparities.”

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