Sam Wijesinghe, DHSc, AAHIVS, PA-C
Dr. Sam Wijesinghe, DHSc, PA-C, felt compelled to enter the medical field when tragedy struck the life of his third-grade companion. Wijesinghe grew up in a small Sri Lankan town with limited access to medical facilities. After his friend was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, first responders transported the boy to a hospital several miles away. By the time he arrived, he had already suffered irreparable brain damage. The event deeply impacted Wijesinghe, and he set goals at a young age to help people like his friend.
Practicing medicine became the conduit to realize his dreams, but he knew he wanted to study in the United States. That meant facing high tuition costs for medical school, especially for an international student. As an adult, he moved to the U.S., studied healthcare management and eventually worked for a healthcare company. However, his longtime ambition to practice clinically led him to become a PA, which afforded him a medical education with reduced financial burden and more time to spend with his growing family.
Today, Wijesinghe practices family medicine managing both urgent care and chronic patients at Adventist Health Central Valley Network (AHCVN) in Sanger, California. The central California town is home to less than 25,000 people with a shortage of primary care providers, and he was passionate about working in an underserved area.
“My patient pool ranges from pediatrics to geriatrics,” he said. “I manage care for the whole family. It’s satisfying to watch the growth of kids you’ve taken care of since they were infants.”
It is there, too, that he began his fight against HIV. Soon after joining staff at AHCVN, Wijesinghe was invited to join the University of California, San Francisco Fresno Family and Community Medicine Department as an HIV testing coordinator. He wanted to make a palpable difference, and as an HIV testing coordinator, Wijesinghe educates the community and fellow providers about the disease.
“HIV is very steady in the U.S. at about 1.1 million cases and 50,000 new infections each year,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges now is with patients between 15 and 39. About 60 percent of those infected don’t know they have the disease. That’s a very big number, especially when they act as though they don’t have it and engage in risky sexual behavior so that it is transmitted to others.”
Within the U.S. only 30 percent of HIV patients currently have viral suppression, meaning that the disease is controlled with medication so it is virtually non-transmittable to others. Among youth, that number drops to 6 percent. “That is a very poor situation, and we have a lot of work to do,” said Wijesinghe. “The young generation is the future, so we need to help them.”
Wijesinghe tackles the spread of the disease through HIV screenings and encouraging patients to follow challenging medication regimens and attend all appointments. He uses highly personalized methods to keep his patients accountable, and subsequently patients are more responsive. He explained, “If a patient doesn’t come to an important appointment, I call them personally. Normally clinicians are so busy they can’t do that, but I like to keep a small panel of HIV patients so I can call them to see how things are going.”
He adds, “Most of them are grateful about my phone calls and say ‘you are the only provider who calls me like that.’ I see that there’s a trust, and then I tell them, ‘You and I are a team, and we can work together to get this under control so you can lead a normal life."
Wijesinghe says it’s important to communicate that an HIV diagnosis isn’t a death sentence. Modern medicine makes the condition manageable and allows patients to have a similar life expectancy to those not infected. “It’s a holistic treatment approach,” he said. “I encourage them to stay connected with friends and family and be optimistic about life. They are more compliant with taking their medication if they feel that they have hope.”
Colleagues notice Wijesinghe’s impact on patient lives too. A. Ligonde, a co-worker, says, “He is very knowledgeable and compassionate towards his patients. He cares deeply about them and would go the extra mile to help someone in need. This is truly his calling.”
Recently, Wijesinghe reaped the benefits of a four-year investment. In May 2017, he earned his doctorate in global health and uses a new body of knowledge to amplify his message of HIV prevention and education. “I decided to go back to school because I could teach future clinicians including PA students at the university level while still practicing, share real cases with students and continue my research into HIV/AIDS topics.”
In addition to practicing as a clinician, Wijesinghe works as an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Davis for the Master of Health Services — PA Studies and NP degree programs. He received the HIV and AIDS fellowship research award at the American Conference for the Treatment for HIV in 2014. As a highly-sought speaker and lecturer, Wijesinghe leads lectures at several national conferences and events and also educates the next generation of PAs as a clinical preceptor.