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story.lead_photo.caption Dr. Stacy Zimmerman of Searcy has a passion for rural health care and teaches patient-centered care as director of the internal-medicine residency program at Unity Health. Zimmerman was named in May as board chairwoman of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care Board of Directors, a health-improvement organization. She and her husband, Denny Zimmerman, have two grown daughters, Shawn Zimmerman, a veterinarian and clinical pathologist in infectious diseases at the University of Georgia School of Medicine in Athens, and Sheri Ozment, a neonatal intensive-care respiratory therapist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. The Zimmermans have a granddaughter, Evelynn Ozment, 6 months. - Photo by Jennifer Ellis

Dr. Stacy Zimmerman of Searcy led an eight-hour orientation of 12 internal-medicine residents and others at Unity Health. Afterward, she drove home to quickly change clothes and attend a graduation of new doctors.

She wasn’t stressed in the least; that’s what she lives for.

Zimmerman gave up a full-time medical practice in Clinton two years ago to become associate director of the internal-medicine residency program at Unity Health in Searcy. On July 1, she became the director.

Dr. Z, as her internal-medicine residents call her, is a rarity. She is board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics.

She said her 14-year medical practice in Clinton was fun, and she wasn’t looking for a change.

“I was very, very happy; I so loved my practice and my patients,” she said. “I was happy with how the practice was running, following all these new innovative models in taking care of patients … patient-centered care.”

Enter Ray Montgomery, the longtime CEO of Unity Health, who will retire in August.

He and Zimmerman served together on the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care Board of Directors, a health-improvement organization. Zimmerman was named board chairwoman in May.

Montgomery took notice of her innovative efforts to focus on patients in a rural setting.

At her clinic in Clinton, she was involved in processes and models to promote patient-centered care, to make sure all the aspects of their health care worked together.

“I collaborated with Blue Cross Blue Shield, with Medicare and Medicaid to work on innovative patient-centered medical homes, centered around a patient’s care — centered around what the patient needs as the pivotal point in coordinating their care so it’s not fragmented,” she said.

With doctors using different electronic medical-record systems, it’s hard for care not to be fragmented, she said.

In the patient-centered medical home, a doctor called a physician champion coordinates the patient’s care.

Zimmerman said Montgomery told her, ‘We want you to teach doctors how to do this and imprint a bigger footprint.’”

Montgomery said Zimmerman was “a standout” on the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care Board, and he was intrigued listening to her talk about her innovative practices.

“She is just on the cutting edge of all this stuff — the computer knowledge base, engagement of her team, focusing on her patients, making sure she’s doing everything she can for being an advocate for her patients,” he said.

He visited Zimmerman’s clinic in Clinton.

“When I went into her clinic, it’s first-class, all modernized and up to date and busy as can be,” he said.

Montgomery retold the pitch he made to her:

“We’ve got this residency program, and we’re looking for a program director who can help us lead our internal-medicine residency program into this next generation of physicians,” he said. “You can stay in Clinton and really give great care to the limited number of patients that you have — or, you could be on the cutting edge to develop and train the future physicians in internal medicine and have an even greater impact on not only Clinton, but Arkansas and the country, and encourage those residents to not just look for the big-city lights … but encourage them to go back to rural Arkansas, rural America, and give cutting-edge medical care,” he said. “And she loved that vision. Long story short, we partnered.”

Zimmerman said her new role goes hand in hand with her passion.

“It is my passion to educate physicians to practice in the underserved areas of rural Arkansas,” Zimmerman said. “We really have a residency program that will fit that need.”

Zimmerman takes some internal-medicine residents every Tuesday to the Unity Health Continuity Care clinic in Wynne. They see patients, and she’s the supervising physician.

“What’s nice about this, this allows people in a very rural, underserved area to have access to an internal-medicine physician; that’s unusual,” she said.

It also gets the residents used to working in a rural area, she said.

She spent four years in the medicine-pediatrics residency program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, and when she finished in 2003, she opened her practice in Clinton.

Zimmerman, who grew up in Kansas, said her parents are both graduates of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Her father was a hospital administrator, so she was familiar with the whole health care world, its stresses and rewards.

“My father did specialize in rural health care; that was his area. I really grew up in the environment of rural health care,” she said.

“As a daughter of a hospital administrator — hospital CEOs spend a lot of time recruiting physicians — I grew up baby-sitting for physicians’ kids. I was the designated baby sitter for every physician being recruited. I loved baby-sitting for physicians,” she said.

“I heard all the talk and the encouragement from doctors in regard to how much they enjoyed their life and careers and being servants, and that’s just what I wanted to grow up to be,” Zimmerman said.

“I really think becoming a physician is a calling because it’s not easy. It’s not about the money; you have to truly love what you’re doing. You have to love what you’re doing to get up and work that hard every day,” she said. “It’s more about helping and healing the lives of others than it is about being a doctor.

“It’s kind of funny how life’s a circle. I never thought I’d end up in an administrative role, but I’ve kind of become my father.”

She is also the governor-elect of the Arkansas chapter of the American College of Physicians and will take over in the spring of 2019 as the first female in that role.

“I was really surprised when they told me I was going to be the first woman elected, ever. It really is an honor to represent Arkansas for the American College of Physicians. I’m representing all the internists in the state.”

As the new chairwoman of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, she said, one of her first goals is to move forward the Adverse Childhood Experiences program, referred to as the ACEs program. Those experiences include abuse and neglect, poverty, seeing violence in the home, mental illness and more. Those experiences can lead to an increased risk for the children to have health and behavioral problems for the rest of their lives.

“I think we can take that program and springboard it in other areas in Arkansas,” she said. “One hot topic is opioid addiction, how childhood adverse events can trigger opioid addiction. I hope this work on the ACEs program will continue and expand and assist in addressing this opioid crisis in Arkansas. … It’s going to take many multidisciplinary tools,” she said. “I think ACEs is one of the programs that AFMC has started and spearheaded that has a lot of promise for really beginning to tackle this problem at the roots of where it begins.”

Another goal goes back to her passion and mission.

“I hope we change the landscape in the next 10 years with more doctors in rural areas,” she said. “We need doctors who want to live in rural areas and address the needs where health care is in dire straits. We have to work hard to educate doctors to get them interested in moving to rural areas and getting back to the basics of primary care,” she said.

“We have a great model in our internal-medicine residency. There’s a lot of excitement.”

The residents’ leader may be the most excited of all.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

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