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Making a difference, one patient at at time

New Ulm doc has been helping patients for 50+years

By Carlienne A Frisch

While growing up in New Ulm, Ann Vogel accompanied her physician father when he went on house calls to treat patients. She saw how a relationship between a doctor and a patient developed. Now, at nearly 78 (a retirement age for many), Dr. Vogel has repurposed her life, dedicating it to providing medical care to patients in all walks of life. She is carrying on the personal way of practicing medicine that she learned at her father’s side and seeks ways to make a difference in patients’ lives. She’s concerned that the practice of medicine is seen as an industry, becoming what she has come to call corporate medicine.

Dr. Ann Vogel has been treating patients in the area for more than 50 years. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“We need to get back to the humanity in medicine,” she said. “I saw how my father treated patients. I saw the importance of a relationship between patients and doctors, and I learned that patients are not numbers on a chart, but people to be guided in their total health care.” The experience at her father’s side led her to consider no career other than medicine, although her three siblings chose careers in teaching constitutional law, elementary education and nutrition research.

In preparation for a medical career, Ann Vogel earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in zoology and microbiology, followed by a Master of Science degree in zoology. She then applied to medical school, as well as to veterinary school as a backup. She was accepted by both schools and enrolled at the only women’s medical college in Pennsylvania. The idea of becoming a “lady doctor” in an era of gender discrimination caused her no concern even though her father warned her that some of his female colleagues felt they weren’t readily accepted.

With her usual “no nonsense” approach, Dr. Vogel has always regarded discrimination as a non-issue. She said, “I found that male colleagues liked having a team-oriented, willing co-worker. Patients want someone competent who is willing to listen to their concerns.” She received post-graduate training at Hennepin County General Hospital before joining her father and his partner in their New Ulm medical practice in 1970. She also began serving on various state and local boards, including the Minnesota Medical Association’s bioethics committee.

When Dr. Vogel recognized a local need for more physicians in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, she enrolled in a four-year residency program at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine and later attended courses at various other medical schools. She spent a month as a volunteer OB/GYN on a Navajo reservation in Arizona before returning to New Ulm in 1991 to establish an OB/GYN and family medicine practice. She always has felt drawn to help people who are overlooked by the growing medical industry.

Hoping to find a specific medical void to fill, Dr. Vogel contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Health Department. She said, “I was seeking an unmet need, but I received no response to my inquiries. I considered Doctors Without Borders, and then one evening in 2004, I saw a TV message from the not-for-profit Open Door Health Center in Mankato.” She phoned and left a message, asking if her medical services were needed. She was contacted the next day.

Dr. Vogel’s first months as a volunteer physician at Open Door fulfilled her desire to help patients who were most in need. She considered it a “good fit,” and realized that providing patient care to a local patient population that was medically underserved was similar to practicing medicine in a developing country. In January 2005, she became Open Door’s acting medical director and often the only full-time staff physician.

“I had the best of two worlds, combining the volunteer medical director’s duties with those of a paid physician,” she said. “It was a very satisfying time to be there. In addition to seeing patients, I spent countless hours streamlining services, cross-training staff and helping to develop grant funding and donations.” She developed techniques to help patients who had educational or language barriers that prevented them from reading the directions on a prescription.

“I drew simple pictures to instruct a patient in taking medications—a sketch of a foot on a medication for feet, or a moon on medication the patient is to take before bedtime,” she said.

After Open Door achieved several goals, including increased funding, Dr. Vogel returned to private medical practice in New Ulm.

Dr. Ann Vogel. Photo by Shayds of Color, New Ulm

Dr. Vogel treated patients for a half century before leaving what she calls corporate medicine (medical practice in a clinic or hospital) in June 2019. She intends to keep her medical license, and her goal is the same it has always been—to make a difference in the lives of people who are not able to afford access to adequate medical care. She explained, “I saw that corporate medicine was not a good fit for me anymore. I was due to do something else. I saw unmet medical needs out in the community—needs that are also statewide, region wide and nationwide. I could see there would be a role I could play in helping to solve some of those problems and to meet some of those unmet medical needs, which often fall into socioeconomic barriers for patients. Some cancer patients may lose their insurance and then lose contact with their chemotherapy treatment followup. Some people cannot afford health insurance, for example self-employed farmers, who are considered a poor insurance risk. We cannot practice good medicine without linking into multiple social services. I see myself acting as a connector to help people to get the medical care they need. I have an array of medical resources.”

One organization in which Dr. Vogel remains active is the Minnesota Cancer Alliance Policy Committee. She said, “We’re all volunteers, and all professionals, seeking to decrease the cancer burden in Minnesota with prevention, early detection, timely treatment options and connecting with people who are cancer survivors—and their families.”

In addition to trying to change the big picture, Dr. Vogel continues to practice one-to-one medicine with patients. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she made what she calls “stop and drop visits,” seeing patients she knew had ongoing medical issues. Although Dr. Vogel no longer carries a pager, she keeps herself available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can leave a cell phone message or a text. Because she feels that consulting with a patient on a computer screen can lead to physician burnout, she continues the practice of face-to-face medical visits that she first experienced as a youngster at her father’s side. She advises all patients, everywhere, “If you don’t understand something, ask questions and learn to be your own advocate.”

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