Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. James Woolliscroft, Dean of University of Michigan Medical School

Alan Tang
Published on Nov 19, 2014. Updated on Invalid date.

Dr. James O. Woolliscroft has served as Dean of the University of Michigan Medical School since 2007. He is also the Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine in the department of Internal Medicine. Prior to becoming dean, Dr. Woolliscroft served as associate chair in the department of Internal Medicine, chief of staff of the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers, associate dean and director of graduate medical education, and executive associate dean, amongst numerous leadership positions. Throughout his career, Dr. Woolliscroft has been recognized time and time again for his outstanding work in the medical field, including being named the Josiah C. Macy, Jr. Professor of Medical Education Endowed Professorship, accepting the 2004 SGIM Career Achievement in Medical Education Award and the 2008 AAMC Merrell Flair Award in Medical Education. In 2013, he was elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academies — considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.

How did you decide on a career in medicine?
I have been interested in biology from a very young age; dissecting fish we caught, collecting butterflies and insects; through personal experiences, I had the opportunity to witness the impact medicine made on lives. In college, biology was really exciting and medicine was where the excitement was.

What were a few key steps in your journey from an aspiring medical student to your current position as the Dean of the Medical School at the University of Michigan?
It’s certainly been a long journey; when I started out in medical school I only had a vague idea of the multitude of possibilities that a M.D. provided. I pursued an Internal Medicine residency and was subsequently chosen to be a chief resident; I always enjoyed teaching and had a mentor who gave me the responsibility of leading a major course in the medical school within only a couple of years of coming on to the faculty; this was my first taste of administration; throughout the years different administrative opportunities have arisen and I found that I enjoyed the administrative side of medicine.

What is the greatest difference between the clinical side of medicine and the administrative side?

On the clinical side you have the opportunity to form relationships with patients and their families directly; on the administrative side what you’re doing and how you impact health and disease is by facilitating the work of others and investing in the future. It is a very different focus; the end goal is similar but the means is different

What made you pick general internist as your specialty?
The intellectual aspect of being a general internist, the whole Sherlock Holmes idea of discerning clues, putting it all together, and coming up with a diagnosis and treatment plan; something I always really enjoyed was taking the history and looking for the subtle clues and being able to knit it all together; in practice, I was fortunate to have a population that included some really complicated patients with genetic syndromes, so working with them to manage a wide array of issues was very interesting;

What does an "average" day look like for you?
Well, there isn’t such thing as an “average” day, per se. Today, I started out with a weekly Dean’s Cabinet meeting with the senior associate deans of the medical school from 7:30-9:00 a.m.; then I worked with a subset of the chairs of the twenty-nine departments to have a conversation about research and coming up with bold research ideas; interviews; meeting with a senior associate dean regarding research; meeting an outside visitor for a conversation about leadership; leading a ceremony to inaugurate an endowed professorship; meeting with the chairs to discuss an array of operational and policy issues; ending with a dinner and evening event for an outside visitor; a lot of meetings; there is a tremendous variety of things to do, both in the internal and external facets of the job; many ceremonial types of activities, whether its endowing a professorship or meeting with donors or governmental officials, etc. In the fall, Saturdays involve hosting visitors at the football game.

What was/were the most memorable experience(s) during your medical education?
Working at Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota was eye-opening. We had a large Native American population that was served by the hospital; seeing end-stage rheumatic valvular diseases in people that were younger than me, witnessing the ravages of TB and other diseases in young people who are an underserved population was very memorable.

What are most the important facets of an undergraduate’s application to medical school from an admission perspective?
It is very important to demonstrate passion about something; some potential applicants seem to have a checklist: volunteer at a homeless shelter for a few hours, wash glassware in a lab for one summer, etc.; from my perspective, I am more interested in someone who shows passion about something; it might be about music; it might be about sport, it might be about starting a business, a whole array of different things; showing that drive and that perseverance and the willingness to stick with something through thick and thin is number one; in addition, appropriate science preparation is necessary. Going forward, it will be far more important for people to have an understanding of interpreting data; undergraduate majors like biomedical engineering in addition to the common pre-med majors like neuroscience and molecular biology are all excellent ways of preparing one for medical school; to me there is no discernible advantage to majoring in a quantitative field; people just tend to come from the sciences more than the humanities.

How do you foresee medical education changing in the next few years?
A shift toward competency-based education; more individualization of learning experiences or “mass customization”: rather than having students be on the equivalent of a treadmill where everyone starts here and does more or less the same thing and gets a degree after four years, there will be more ability for students to follow their own pathway and fulfill desires to obtain second degrees and certificates as part of their medical school experience; a more tailored approach to education rather than industrialized approach to education.

What changes do you believe would improve the quality of medical education?
I think that the move to a competency-based education is a very positive development, so that students know exactly what level of knowledge and skill integration they need to move on to the next step; I think a move away from requiring students to memorize massive quantities of information will be beneficial simply because now that information is almost instantaneously available; what you really need to learn is how to be a good judge of information and how to ask an answerable question, rather than be able to show the intermediary metabolisms pathways, structure of amino acids, and etc.; it is my hope also that there will be a renewed emphasis on the role of healing and the healing role of physicians; we’ve really made tremendous progress with technology, but sometimes it is at the expense of the individual human being; remembering that the whole focus is on the person and not on the disease is critical.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing physicians today?
Physicians today are challenged most by the apparent loss of professional identity. Physicians increasingly are required to meet external demands associated with electronic medical records, regulatory and compliance issues, etc. It is becoming increasingly common to be employed by a hospital or large group, that imposes specific requirements on the physicians; it’s a challenge to adapt to the major transformation that is going on in medicine and not to be swept up in, “it’s just a business”, but always to have preeminent that it is a privilege to be trusted with someone’s life and someone’s care. I see the biggest challenge as losing sight of the primacy of the patient and the privilege, ethical and moral responsibility physicians have in the name of efficiency and productivity; patient care shouldn’t become a production line instead of as caring for an individual with needs.

Are there any final thoughts you would like to add?
I would just add that from my perspective, the opportunity and potential of medicine has never been greater; the breakthroughs and what we have been learning about health and disease is absolutely stunning; people like you forty years from now will look back and say that the medicine I practiced was primitive compared to what people will be doing even twenty years from now; I wish I was thirty years younger because there are many phenomenal opportunities for young students.