The Plateau Post

Sarah Coles, MD, Joins Family Medicine Residency as Director

Sarah Coles, MD, joins the NARBHA Institute Family & Community Medicine Residency at the Colorado Plateau Center for Health Professions as program director. She grew up in Arizona and served as faculty for the family medicine residency at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix for seven years. We sat down with Dr. Coles to get to know her better and learn about her future plans to grow the residency program and train future physicians in northern Arizona.

Tell us a little about you! Where are you from? What is your family like? What are you interested in? 

I was born in Southern California and moved to Phoenix when I was young. I have an older sister and younger brother. My parents have been incredibly, unwaveringly supportive and encouraging of mine and my siblings’ pursuits. 

Sadly, my mother passed away from lung cancer while I was in college. She was a huge influence and role model for me. She embodied volunteerism, compassion, kindness, and community. She worked at our elementary school student book publishing studio (helping children write and illustrate their own short books, which she then bound) and volunteered at local school and community events. My father, now retired, worked for CalPortland Cement. He first got me interested in science and how the world works. 

My hobbies include science fiction and fantasy literature, movies, and television; board games; and music. I am married to my husband, Tyler, who is a computer engineer and works in video game development. He also is the sound engineer for the AFP Podcast, a podcast for the American Family Physician Journal, for which I am an assistant editor. Tyler and I are both super nerdy (“going to local comic con” kind of nerdy) and have 2 cats, Zim and Gir.

Tell us about your education journey – what were some areas of focus, and why did you chose particular institutions?

I attended the University of Arizona as a Flinn Scholar for my undergraduate degrees. While there, I received a Bachelor of Music in saxophone performance and a Bachelor of Science in molecular and cellular biology. I love music and the saxophone, but quickly realized that this was not the career for me. I am fascinated by science, people’s stories, and how medicine can positively impact people’s lives. 

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was an undergraduate, and this radically shaped my career path. Her diagnosis came as a shock, and I remember the news being poorly delivered in a harried emergency department. She was an incredible person who built bridges and relationships with everyone she met; ultimately, she had a stellar healthcare team who treated her as a whole person and cared about her beyond just her disease state. I witnessed both the good and the bad of the healthcare system and wanted to be a positive force for change and patient advocate. This solidified my path to medicine. 

I attended the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix in its inaugural class. This was an incredible opportunity, with a small class (there were only 24 of us), a close-knit and dedicated faculty, and a community that was enthusiastically engaged in our medical education. I met many of my mentors while there who inspired me to go into family medicine, including Dr. Steve Brown, Dr. Jeff Wolfrey, Dr. Jacque Chadwick, and Dr. Doug Campos-Outcalt. 

Tell us about your career journey – what led you to the position you’re in now? 

I attended residency at Banner Good Samaritan (now called Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix). After graduating, I stayed on as core faculty with the residency. I also developed and directed the UA COMP longitudinal patient care course, a unique longitudinal course that centers a person in the community (the community health mentor) in a team of interprofessional students. This course allowed me to explore my interests in social determinants of health and equity, interprofessional integrated team-based care, leadership development, and advocacy. 

After several years, I moved into a full-time faculty role at BUMCP Family Medicine Residency. In addition to resident education, my role included directing the integrated behavioral health program, functioning as the site director for rotating medical students, and running our resident-taught afterschool program for a local middle school. 

I also was deeply involved in organized medicine, serving on the Arizona Academy of Family Physicians and Arizona Medical Association board of directors. I also served on the American Academy of Family Physicians Commission on Health of the Public and Science for four years and chaired this commission last year. I found through all these roles my passion for medical education, community engagement, advocacy, and interprofessional care. This led me to apply for the program director position here where I could use these skills to grow our young residency! I feel so fortunate to be here and to get to work in this amazing program with such fantastic people!

What drew you to northern Arizona?

Northern Arizona has a significant shortage of primary care physicians, which creates barriers for our patients and communities and worsens health disparities. I was drawn to northern Arizona to work at this residency program to train physician leaders to fill these gaps and meet the needs of this community.

What excites you most about being part of the family medicine residency program at CPCHP? 

I could not be more thrilled to be part of the family and community medicine residency program at CPCHP! I am excited to be part of a teaching health center and program that is housed in an FQHC (federally qualified health center). This allows us the flexibility, skills, and supports needed to train family medicine residents to serve rural and underserved communities to reduce the primary care shortage and healthcare disparities. This organization and the entire team is dedicated to providing high-quality training for our residents and committed to the mission and purpose of primary care. 

What challenges do you expect for your time as the program director?

This is a new and growing residency, so I expect we will run across some challenges. We will need to continue to identify how to best integrate a family medicine residency into an existing and busy FQHC clinical practice. As a new person to Flagstaff and northern Arizona, I am getting to know our partners and clinical neighborhood to build relationships, grow teaching opportunities and rotations, and to truly bring the residency into the community we serve.

What is your hope for the residents who practice in the program?

My hope is our residents feel confident and prepared in their training to become the physician leaders and advocates providing high quality primary care to rural and underserved communities. I sincerely hope they choose to stay in northern Arizona!

— Sarah Coles, MD

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