Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Holly Humphrey, Dean for Medical Education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine

Alice Ferng
Dec 10, 2014

We are pleased to feature Dr. Holly J. Humphrey, MD, MACP, as part of our Leaders in Medical Education Series. Dr. Humphrey completed her internal medicine residency and pulmonary and critical care fellowship at The University of Chicago before joining the faculty in 1989. She is a nationally recognized leader in medical education scholarship with a specific focus on the role of mentoring in medical education. Numerous awards have been given to her for her innovation, work, and leadership, including the prestigious Ralph W. Gerard Professor in Medicine Award in 2012. In addition, Dr. Humphrey has acted as the catalyst or founder of numerous programs and important causes, including the Roadmap to Professionalism initiative to support and enhance the highest professional standards and a curriculum reform effort, and is the Founding Dean of the Academy of Distinguished Medical Educators. She has also launched the Pritzker Advising and Mentoring Societies in support of student life and the Bowman Society, which explores issues of health care disparities and provides mentoring for minority students, residents, and faculty.

1) How did you decide on a career in medicine?

Well, my original career plan did not materialize. I had hoped to be a performer with a major orchestra in the US; however, when I sat down during my senior year of high school and calculated the odds of being a professional flautist, I realized that my ideal career was not so ideal. I had a long-standing interest in science—I found it satisfying because it piqued my curiosity, and challenging because there were always problems to be solved, which in turn always led to more questions. I enjoyed the potential challenges of a career that was at the intersection of science and humanity.

2) What made you pick internal medicine as your specialty?

I was in the fortunate position of loving every aspect of medicine that I had experienced in school, so I think I would have felt happy and fulfilled in any number of specialties. I gravitated toward Internal medicine because—there is a theme here—it represented a great challenge: it is filled with so much possibility and so many areas of focus, and I found it to be the best representation of the juxtaposition of scientific discovery and the betterment of humanity.

3) As the author of the book “Mentoring in Academic Medicine,” what are the top two or three things you would change about the way we train our physicians?

There are three things I would change. First: the cost. Medical school is a public good and should be available to all who want to study it; unfortunately, it has become cost-prohibitive to many potential students. Second: I would add an explicit focus on managing stress so that students and practitioners can maintain their love of their career over the years and avoid burnout. Third: In many cases, we train our physicians in an increasingly impersonalized way rather than in a one-on-one, viscerally connected way. The study of medicine has a great risk of becoming more impersonal because of the many demands in a very complex system, which includes everything from the day-to-day operations of a healthcare enterprise to the pace at which those operations are ideally working. The complexities and pull between those demands can make the medical training environment depersonalized, which is a huge risk factor to burnout. A future doctor is best positioned to not just amass a set of facts, but to learn, from a true mentor, the real art of medicine: interacting with and helping human beings at very vulnerable times in their lives.

4) What do you consider most important in designing the MD curriculum at the Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine?

In designing the curriculum, I feel strongly about stepping back and using the creative and intellectual talent of the faculty and students. I am passionate about medical education that is built around scholarship and discovery. Here at Pritzker, we invite our students to take an active role in discovering something new about any number of questions that they may wish to ask and answer during their time in medical school. The skill set they use to take a deep dive in exploring those questions are the same skills that will serve them for a lifetime in the medical field.

5) Do you regularly use online medical resources in your own practice? What changes do you think need to be made to bridge the gap between technology and medical education?

No one can practice today without utilizing technology; the key is utilizing it with purpose, so that it enhances the patient care experience instead of detracting from it. Personally, I have found Epocrates to be an incredibly useful tool in that respect.

There are increasingly more and more technological tools available; however, using them in isolation prevents the intersection of science, care, and technology, and some programs run the risk of being non-sterile tools (even if they are fun and interactive). The good news is that technology in the 21st century has the greatest potential to really address issues of patient safety and healthcare quality. When used well, these programs can ultimately be some of the most powerful ways that we can help our patients.

6) Every few weeks there appears to be a new report discussing burnout rates of physicians and the fact that many would decide not to pursue medicine if given the chance. In this somewhat disheartening environment, do you have any advice for current medical students about avoiding burnout? Or more general advice?

I hope to instill in our students the understanding that medicine is a lifelong career, and the journey to becoming a physician is a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore, learning how to develop healthy ways of living, including during periods of very high stress, is one of the ultimate goals for all of our lives, irrespective of the field we are in.

Practically, I can elucidate a few concrete tips: 1) take a long view of your career and practice; 2) establish healthy habits related to eating, exercise, sleeping, and developing friendships; 3) identify and explore leisure activities outside of medicine; 4) stay connected to family, and treasure and value your personal relationships; 5) pursue your spiritual self in whatever way is most meaningful to you; and 6) recognize that your colleagues are an important part of your support system; and so nurture your relationships with your colleagues. You are part of a team that includes other healthcare professionals, so make the effort to learn with and from them—you are not in this alone.

Finally, recognize where you get your energy from and pursue that with passion. When I was in residency, I discovered that I derived enormous energy from my interactions with patients—those interactions helped mitigate whatever stress or complexity was a part of my job as a physician.