October 15, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Physician Leadership Professional Development & Education
Humboldt County family physician Willard M. Hunter, M.D., was awarded the California Medical Association’s (CMA) Frederick K.M. Plessner Memorial Award on Saturday, at the association's annual House of Delegates meeting in Sacramento. The award honors the California physician who best exemplifies the ethics and practice of a rural country practitioner.
As a graduate of the prestigious UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Hunter could have gone anywhere to practice family medicine, but he chose rural Humboldt County, where the natural beauty inspired him. In the 1980s, he started his practice in Redway, a town with a population of less than 1,000, at a time when there was a “serious shortage” of obstetrical services.
"When I first started out, I wanted to be a doctor for people who didn’t have a doctor," said Dr. Hunter.
Dr. Hunter not only delivered babies, but he also set broken bones, treated chain saw injuries and cared for the dying. His talent and versatility have made him a standout to patients and referring physicians alike.
Family medicine is particularly challenging in a rural area, said colleague John A. Montgomery, M.D., a general, vascular and thoracic surgeon. Family practitioners in rural areas must have an extensive and broad knowledge base because it's hard to refer patients out of the area to specialists. “In this regard, Dr. Hunter is superb," said Dr. Montgomery. "I have watched him tackle difficult medical problems with logic, tenacity and insight."
Since 1989, Dr. Hunter has served as medical director of the Open Door Community Health Centers. Through his leadership at Open Door, what was once a small health center for the very poor is now a group of 13 clinics, and three mobile clinics, spread throughout Humboldt and Del Norte counties, serving approximately 50,000 patients a year and employing over 500 members of the community.
Dr. Hunter has also been a key figure in providing compassionate health care to people with HIV. During the 1980s and 90s, with the discovery HIV disease, Dr. Hunter showed true talent in providing state-of-the-art treatment to patients in Humboldt. “He was willing, when many other providers were not, to do what was needed for a desperate and marginalized population,” said colleague Mary Meengs, M.D., who has worked with Dr. Hunter at Open Door for the past 14 years. "He cared for these patients with respect and grace.”
For the past 10 years, Dr. Hunter has also led the Humboldt community’s work in providing medication-assisted treatment for opiate dependent patients. “He took the time to get trained and has remained on the leading edge of national standards,” said Dr. Meengs.
According to 2015 U. S. Census data 21 percent of Humboldt county residents live in poverty — the median household income is $40,000 and the area has a 7.4 unemployment rate. “[Dr. Hunter] had taken on the neediest segment of our population, those without insurance and who are disenfranchised by poverty, geographic isolation, mental illness, and substance dependence. He has provided direct care and been a leader and an inspiration to other providers,” said Dr. Meengs.
This versatile and compassionate man has become a vital part of his North Coast community, providing quality rural care. “We started out taking care of so many marginalized people and now we have become a big part of the primary care network in Northern California,” said Dr. Hunter.
His patients travel long distances to get his care. Many of them dress up, just to see me, he says. “I feel lucky to be a physician,” he said. “I feel honored to be a physician — this is a huge honor and a privilege that I never take for granted."
For more, see CMA's 2016 Plessner Award video at www.youtube.com/cmaphysicians