August 18, 2016
Barbara Sobko, left, and Karen Buckner By Amy Bickers | August 18, 2016

In 1972, Roberta Flack topped the music charts with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. The Godfather was the top-grossing film. The leisure suit was gaining popularity, and a Chevrolet Chevelle could be yours for about $3,000.

In this pop culture landscape of light rock hits and quotable movies, Pink L. Folmar, Jr., MD, graduated from the School of Medicine at UAB and launched a long career in healthcare. He completed a residency and served as chief medical resident before accepting his first position as an internist with Simon-Williamson Clinic in Birmingham.

The average debt of graduating medical students was about $5,000.

Cut to 2014.

Pharrell Williams’ Happy was the No. 1 song of the year. Transformers: Age of Extinction was the top-grossing movie. The Chevrolet Chevelle had long ago gone the way of so many discarded leisure suits.

A native of Montgomery, Folmar and his wife, Miriam, had raised two daughters and a son. He had spent 29 years with Simon-Williamson Clinic. He had experienced the emotional rewards of serving as a small town doctor in Brundidge, Ala., population 2,500, from 2005 to 2010. He was back in Birmingham working at an urgent care group. All the while, he watched the way healthcare and education evolved.

And, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average amount of medical school debt for graduates had climbed to $183,000.

“One of the main things that is very evident in today’s medical school experience is student debt. It’s overwhelming,” says Folmar, who was elected president of the Medical Alumni Association (MAA) three years ago.

Folmar retired in January and is now focused on helping and inspiring the next generation of physicians. “I have told many people that being president of our MAA is easy, because there is so much to boast about in regard to the quality of education and the vast amount of research being done at UAB,” he says.

He’s putting that high praise for UAB into action. He has made a gift to establish the Pink L. and Miriam R. Folmar Endowed Medical Scholarship, which will support third- or fourth-year students who wish to pursue careers in primary care medicine.

The focus on primary care is deliberate, because as Folmar watched student debt increase, he watched another phenomenon develop: the connection between student indebtedness and specialty choice.

A 1985 study by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Gloria J. Bazzoli, PhD, confirmed the connection: “Trends in debt loads will decrease the number of primary care physicians ... “ she wrote in her study, published in the journal Health Affairs. “New physicians with substantial educational indebtedness will select specialties that promise higher earnings in order to offset large loan repayments.”

Thirty years after that study, the Association of American Medical Colleges released a report stating that the United States will face a shortage of between 12,000 and 31,000 primary care physicians by 2025.

“Hopefully, we can push new physicians toward primary care by helping decrease student debt,” Folmar says. “The scholarship is just a small fraction of tuition right now, but hopefully it will have some impact. If we can show that one individual can do it, maybe we can inspire more to give.”

Folmar and other members of the MAA are committed to teaching future physicians for life on the other side of graduation. Seminars are offered for juniors and seniors so they can hear long-time physicians discuss their careers – the rewards and frustrations, as well as the business side of medical practice. The MAA also provides support for the Medical Student Enrichment Program, emergency assistance to medical students through the Medical Student Assistance Fund, and white coats for first year students.

School of Medicine alumni support is a significant part of the Campaign for UAB. By the end of May, the Alumni Campaign had reached 83 percent of its ambitious $30 million fundraising goal for The Campaign for UAB, with 2,826 medical alumni making contributions totaling more than $24,900,000.

“When I was growing up, my mother often said ‘If someone does something good for you, find a way to pay them back,’” Folmar says. “There were exceptional role models when I was in school here, and there are exceptional role models at UAB now. I’m very proud of my degree from this medical school because of how I’ve seen it grow.

“I want to give back, and I feel the greatest contribution I can give to the School of Medicine is the inspiration to motivate others to give as well – through mentoring, meeting with students, and being involved.”

For information on how to support the School of Medicine: Jackie F. Wood, jfwood@uab.edu; (205) 996-0815.