Interview with Dr. Alexander Pozun

Last Updated: Dec 15, 2021

Tell us about your experience as a school district physician and team physician and how that’s changed during the pandemic?

In 2018, I had the opportunity to become a school district physician for my alma mater—the Westmont Hilltop School District. Before COVID-19, I was doing physicals once a year and ordering the occasional EpiPen. Then came COVID-19, and it turned into weekly meetings, sometimes multiple times a week, with phone calls almost daily. I’d get phone calls a lot from school nurses. Things were constantly changing and there was no straight answer. It got pretty hectic, especially as our area got hit hard with COVID-19 in November/December 2020.

It was crazy because this was not what I expected to be doing when I became the school district physician. A lot of it was trying to plan–the students need to have some normalcy in their day, including extracurricular activities, but first and foremost, they needed to be able to do them safely and stay healthy, while following public health guidelines.

I played hockey my whole life, so I was excited to fall into the role as team physician for the Johnstown Tomahawks Junior A Hockey Club. Prior to COVID-19, as a team physician, I mainly dealt with hockey-related injuries such as lacerations and broken bones. As COVID-19 hit, I began talking to the coach multiple times a day. I was on the phone 24/7, figuring out how to keep the players safe both on and off the ice–in the locker room, on the ice, during bus trips, etc.

Tell us a little about the Mentoring in Medicine Program.

It’s one of the only programs like it in the country. The program is in its 18th year. I’ve seen it come full circle. I participated in the program as a student in 2010. It made such a difference in my life. I came from a non-medical family. I knew I wanted to be a physician, but I didn’t know how to get there. After I completed the program, I came back as a student coordinator and helped with scheduling. When the founders were retiring, I knew there was no way I could let this program end. So, my wife, who is a physical therapist, and I took over the program two years ago.

It’s a 10-week program for pre-med students. We usually take 10 students, and rotate them through various medical specialties. There are weekly lectures for the students on a myriad of topics such as how to write your personal statement and how to interview.

The hospital funds the program. It’s a win-win. The students are getting the experience they need while getting paid, and it’s a recruiting tool for the hospital. Currently in the ER, there are six of us who have gone through the program and have come back to work as physicians in the ER at Conemaugh Hospital.

Last year was the first full summer my wife and I were running the program ourselves. Applications were done, paperwork was done, the students were selected, everything was ready to go. The hospital emailed us two weeks before and said, due to COVID-19, the program was going to be cancelled. It was heartbreaking. I advocated for the program to continue—communicating with hospital administrators, the GME office, and the COVID command center. Luckily, we were able to come up with a safety plan to allow the program to happen. We bought the PPE (e.g. masks, eye protection, etc.) and made sure the students had exactly what they needed to safely participate. The hospital was generous enough to allow the students to use their masks when they were rotating with surgeons at the hospital. Once we had a safety plan, the hospital was on board.

I’d like to thank Drs. Richard and Dianna Schroeder—the founders of the program – for allowing me to take it over when they retired. 

Why were you so motivated to advocate for the program to continue?

I know how important and influential the Mentoring in Medicine program was in my journey to becoming a physician. Students only get one opportunity to do this. It’s one shot. All 10 students were already selected. If the hospital would’ve told us no, those 10 students probably wouldn’t have gotten another chance as we had another group of qualified and excited students right behind them eager to participate in the summer 2021 program. I knew how much this program meant to me, so I fought hard for it to continue last summer. There was no way we could let this program fall through, even for one summer. I knew for these students and for myself this was definitely a necessity. The students were all very thankful for the opportunity.

I consider this my biggest accomplishment so far—being able to keep it going. Hospitals are contacting us to try to replicate this program. We’re also doing research to show the benefits of programs like this, especially in rural areas. The program helps students obtain knowledge and experience necessary for matriculation into medical school, while also allowing the hospital to use it as a physician recruitment tool to address physician shortages.

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