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Community profile: Memphis, Tennessee

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If physicians in Memphis were musicians, they would be playing rock and roll rather than the blues. The city fostered both musical styles, but Memphis physicians are working at a fast pace these days and they have little to be blue about professionally.

Connie Holladay, MD, a geriatrician at the Methodist Senior Heath Center, explains her schedule: “I have a hospital practice and the Senior Center practice and I do a little bit of nursing home practice. I also make occasional home visits for someone who just absolutely can’t get out and then we have the residents come over as part of the teaching practice also. I’m really busy; I didn’t mean to be quite this busy.”

Holladay was in private practice before shifting gears to enter a fellowship in endocrinology. She left her fellowship recently to join the Senior Center, a part of Methodist Health Systems.

Holladay says that in her various practices, she has always been busy. “I always thought there were an awful lot of doctors here because of the medical school and everything but this is a relatively new practice and I am about as busy as I can be. Even when we first got out of school and started practice we were really busy.”

In this case at least, busy doctors are well-paid doctors.

Medical opportunities in Memphis

David Meenan, DO says he and his fiancée, also a physician, decided to stay in the Memphis area rather than return to the northeast because of the medical opportunities here. “One of the reasons we’re staying is the opportunities down here both financially as well as professionally are so much greater,” he says. “There is general primary care family practice as well as opportunities in pediatrics, obstetrics, and internal medicine. It’s still a fairly wide open field.”

Meenan adds that the compensation levels in the area are very good. “As far as finances are concerned, the contracts being offered here are more substantial than those I have seen in the northeast for similar positions. As far as actual contract numbers it’s better, plus the fact that there is no city tax for Memphis, there is no state tax for Tennessee and the cost of living, in general, is much less.”

In addition to good compensation, young physicians can advance quickly. “I’m only two years out of residency and I’ve been able to get a fairly good position,” says Meenan, the medical director for Baptist Minor Medical Centers, the urgent-care component of Baptist Memorial Health Care System, Inc. “So if you apply yourself, there are opportunities for young physicians here to move up the professional ladder relatively rapidly.”

Jeff Warren, MD has experienced rapid growth in his private familymedicine practice, a group of four physicians and three nurse practitioners. “We took over two dying internal medicine practices in ’92. We probably started off with about 1,500 patients total. We are at 7,000 patients now. We are seeing an average of 5 to 15 new patients a day.”

The reasons for the high demand for doctors seem to be threefold. First, the Midsouth in general is historically underserved. Second, Memphis is a referral center for a large portion of the Midsouth region. Third, Memphis is growing, and the health industry has not been reined in significantly by managed care.

The Midsouth, although it is growing, has long been relatively underserved. “It’s not as underserved as it had been previously, but there is still a great deal of job opportunity down here,” says Meenan. Opportunities with Baptist exist in all types of settings, from urban hospitals in Memphis to small rural practices in west Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, he says. “There are opportunities both in the urban as well as the rural hospitals and everything in between as far as private practices are concerned.”

Memphis’ five-state scope

“We’re a referral center for a five-state area here,” says Warren. “You have your pick of the best of the best specialists for five states for your patients. That’s really nice.”

Memphis hospitals serve western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Arkansas, as well as portions of Kentucky and Missouri.

Warren also respects the professional relationship among the hospital organizations and their staffs. “You have a little natural rivalry but I think the professionalism of the communities overweighs that.”

Memphis’ health community consists of two of the largest private hospital organizations in the nation, Baptist and Methodist, and the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine. The UT College of Medicine includes the University of Tennessee Medical Center-Bowld Hospital where doctors pioneered liver transplants.

James B. Lewis, Jr., MD an associate professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee department of internal medicine, is quick to tout the mutual benefits of the university’s relationship with the hospitals and physicians in the community.

“It’s a good thing for the University of Tennessee to have these hospitals where they can send housestaff for training,” says Lewis, referring to opportunities residents have for clinical rotations at Methodist, Baptist, and other  Memphis-area hospitals.

“The university also benefits from the volunteer faculty here. They have a large number of unpaid faculty who provide clinical training and who provide procedural training for the residents,” says Lewis.

In addition to the Baptist and Methodist systems, the city’s16 hospitals include St. Joseph Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, a part of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. St. Jude, founded by entertainer Danny Thomas, has achieved success in the treatment of cancer in children. It is currently undergoing an expansion and is involved in major research on AIDS in children.

At the university and at the hospitals, there is a good deal of medical research going on, says Holladay. “At Methodist, although it’s a private hospital, they are really interested in doing more clinical outcome type of research whereas at UT there was a lot more basic science type of research.”

Like many southeastern areas, managed care is not yet a major factor in this medical community. “Managed care is here, it’s been here for a year or two, but things are evolving. It is certainly not a fully mature managed care market at this point,” Lewis says, although the substantial need for primary care physicians in the city is at least partially driven by the demands of managed care.

River trade in Memphis

Its location on the banks of the Mississippi inspired Memphis’ founders, John Overton, James Winchester, and eventual president Andrew Jackson, to name the city for the ancient Egyptian city on the Nile. River transportation helped Memphis quickly become a vital trade center for cotton and other natural resources from the Mississippi Delta region. Memphis is still the largest spot cotton market in the nation and the center of trade for southern hardwoods, soybeans, and other agricultural products from six states.

After yellow fever epidemics sent the city into bankruptcy in the 1870s, Memphis has grown steadily. Memphis’ slow growth, at an easy pace more like the tortoise than the hare, has given the city a broad based economy.

As a trade center and an important stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, Memphis has long been associated with cross-country transportation. Two-thirds of the United States’ population is accessible within a day’s drive of Memphis—one factor that draws major manufacturing companies to Memphis. Memphis is home base for both FedEx and Northwest Airlines. Sharp and Brother, two Japanese electronics manufacturers, have major manufacturing facilities in Memphis. Nike, Walt Disney, Williams-Sonoma, and Technicolor have distribution sites here.

With an infrastructure designed for distribution, all forms of transportation— even the daily commute—are easy. “When I was in New York I lived five miles from the hospital and it took me a half hour to 45 minutes to get to work. Now I live 25 miles from where I work and I get there in 25 minutes,” says Meenan.

It’s also a breeze to visit out-of-town family, says Meenan. “My family is in Boston and my fiancée’s family is in New York City and we can get to either place relatively cheaply with nonstop flights. So even though we’re far from home, we’re really not that far.”

Memphis: City of the South

Although some of Memphis’ most striking landmarks are images reminiscent of its Egyptian namesake—from the Pyramid, a 22,500 seat multi-purpose arena, to the zoo’s Egyptian facade— Memphis’ cultural character is more strongly defined by its southern locale.

“The culture revolves around the Mississippi Delta region—jazz and blues music and the typical southern diet, which I’m not too sure is quite healthy,” says Meenan. “Everything is fried and has a lot of fat on it, but once you adjust to it it’s fine.”

Warren warns newcomers about Memphis’ world-famous barbeque. “You’ve got to watch out—the reps will bring you too much barbeque and you’ll gain weight.”

The Peabody Hotel, a renowned southern landmark, with its luxury accommodations and restaurants, as well as a twice-daily parade of ducks through the grand lobby, reminds visitors of an era of Southern grandeur. But the hotel is also an important part of a vital downtown district. It serves as anchor for a nearly complete downtown development project, Peabody Place. This extensive complex of offices, apartments, shops, stores, a movie theater complex, and a trolley station will be connected by skyways, and corridors.

Memphis’ vintage trolley, the Main Street Trolley, was recently extended to form a downtown loop that connects the trolley with Memphis Central Station, a historic building currently used as the Amtrak passenger terminal.

The city is inextricably linked to the Mississippi River. Mud Island, a park and museum dedicated to the history and influence of the Mississippi River, features a 3/4-mile scale replica of the Mississippi River which empties into a swimming pool in the shape of the Gulf of Mexico. Also on the island is the permanent home of the Memphis Belle bomber, the first B-17 to complete 25 missions over Europe in World War II and return under its own power. The bomber and her crew were made famous by the movie “Memphis Belle.”

The city’s wide, tree-lined streets, river- front pedestrian area, and extensive parks lend the city a lovely green landscape. “It’s a much prettier city than most people realize,” says Lewis. “It has beautiful, beautiful areas. There are lots and lots of trees. It’s enjoyable to drive down the streets in many areas of the city and see the trees.”

Holladay says her family enjoys the parks. “There are a lot of parks and there is a lot of recreational things you can do. There are parks everywhere so if we want to get out and ride bicycles—I wouldn’t recommend it in downtown Memphis, but out in the suburbs we ride bikes all the time.”

Warren enjoys his neighborhood’s amenities as well. “There’s a great zoo, we live a few blocks from it. There is an incredible park we live next to so the kids and I go riding through that. There is this 200-year old forest. You get in the middle of there and you don’t even know you’re in the city.”

More Memphis history

Seeking a better life than the cotton fields of the Delta, African Americans brought music to Memphis in the forms of soul and gospel. From these roots emerged blues and rhythm and blues. Then country music followed. Each style grew and fermented, ultimately blending. From this stock was born rock and roll.

Beale Street in Memphis has long been known as the home of the blues. W. C. Handy, who lived on Beale Street, wrote “Memphis Blues” in 1909. The song is generally considered the first blues song to be committed to paper. Today,  nightclubs and restaurants along Beale Street feature live performances of blues, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll.

Every year Beale Street comes alive during the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, a celebration of Memphis music held in conjunction with the city-wide Memphis in May festival. Holladay says that event used to be a big draw for her and her husband. “During Memphis in May there are a lot of activities downtown. Before we had children we were down there all the time.”

By next spring, a Gibson Guitar plant complete with the Smithsonian Institution’s “Rock’n’Soul: Social Crossroads” exhibit will grace Beale Street, emphasizing the importance of the music of Memphis. The exhibit will portray the social and cultural history of music in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis.

Memphis is inextricably linked with musical icons such as Handy, Albert King, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, who launched their music careers in Memphis, many of them at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio. Recording studios still record such artists as B.B. King, U2, R.E.M., the Gin Blossoms, ZZ Top, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

No doubt the most famous musical citizen of Memphis was Elvis Presley. Musicians and Elvis fans make pilgrimages to Presley’s Memphis home, Graceland, in great numbers.

African ties to Memphis

Aside from its Egyptian name, the city’s heritage has been substantially defined by its African-American citizens. From the music to local landmarks, such as the National Civil Rights Museum, constructed on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the city’s African- American history is ever present. Alex Haley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Roots” lived in Memphis as a child and is buried at his boyhood home just outside the city in Henning, Tennessee.

Racial discord has surfaced in Memphis on many occasions, however. The courts ordered school desegregation in the 1960s, and busing to eliminate segregation in the schools began in 1973.

Lewis admits that race is sometimes still a source of tension in Memphis. “There is some racial polarization within Memphis. The public school that my child attends has a very significant minority group at that school, so I wouldn’t call it an extremely segregated city. Race can always be an issue n Memphis and it’s unfortunate.”

Things may be improving, however. “I think a number of the city’s leaders are trying to diminish that friction,” says Lewis. “There is progress being made.” The city’s African-American mayor, Dr. W.W. Herenton, seems to have extensive support among the white community.

Meenan says the city is becoming more ethnically diverse. “You can see that in the restaurants around town. Some of the restaurants being Thai and Indian and Japanese. So it’s creating more of cultural diversity from what I understand was here previously. That’s not to belittle the endearing aspects of Memphis being the true Southern culture that they still hold to down here quite fondly,” he adds.

More about Memphis culture

Yet the culture in Memphis is not all of Southern origin. The city has its share of classical arts as well. The Brooks  Museum of Art is one of the South’s finest collections of painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, and photography. Opera Memphis, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and Ballet Memphis, along with professional and children’s theater present regular performances.

Wonders: Memphis International Cultural Series is a series of grand-scale exhibitions that have included artifacts from ancient notable figures, including Ramesses II, Napoleon, Catherine the Great, and the Imperial Tombs of China. Currently Titanic! in the Pyramid, presents 300 objects recovered from the world’s most famous shipwreck.

Lewis says the city has a lot to offer in terms of cultural activities. “I’ve lived in different places but I think Memphis just has a lot to offer—many activities for our children.”

Although he says there are sports activities, it is other types of activity that Lewis’ children enjoy. “My kids are more the nerdy type. One child is very much into chess. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to play chess locally and in other places too. For a while he was into cello and they have a very nice youth symphony here. They can do all kinds of lessons: art lessons and many different types of things.”

Holladay’s two daughters also enjoy the arts. “There are a lot of sports down here but they’re busy doing their piano lessons,” she says. “We have season tickets to the ballet. We try to go to all of those because the girls both take dance. Then at the Orpheum there is always something going on.”

Some of the public schools are better than others, but good public schools are available, says Lewis. “I have one child in a private school and one child in public school. There are, of course, a very large number of public schools in Memphis. Some of them are quite good. Some of them are not so good. It’s important to know which are the good schools from the public school standpoint. My younger child, about to turn 10, is in school at Richland elementary which is a very nice school, with lots of extracurricular activities.”

Warren agrees. “There are good public schools. You need to look with your real-estate agent and make sure you get into a section where the public school is good, but there are plenty of those.” His two sons both attend public schools. “We live in an older part of town with really nice older homes, nice neighborhoods, good neighborhood schools,” he says.

Holladay’s daughters attend St. Mary’s Episcopal School. “I love it. I don’t know that much about the public schools. We live in Germantown and we drive downtown to work and St. Mary’s is kind of right on the way. I asked around a lot before we decided. St. Mary’s has after-school care and the girls had to stay there after school so it’s been really nice.”

Memphis is a very cohesive city according to Meenan. “Memphis is different than other major cities I’ve lived in. The city itself essentially comprises the urban and the suburban area. Once you get past the city lines you immediately go into rural area. There are only four incorporated suburbs of Memphis. But it’s growing rapidly and it won’t be like that for long,” he says.

Memphis continues to move to its own rhythm, preserving and enhancing its cultural legacy while building its economic strength. n


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