Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Susan Pollart, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Development at University of Virginia Medical School

Thasin Jaigirdar
Jan 21, 2015

Dr. Susan Pollart serves as the Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development at University of Virginia's School of Medicine. She completed her residency in Family Medicine and has a primary interest in allergies and asthma. She has been a faculty member at University of Virginia since 1988, joining the office of the dean in 2006. We are excited to be featuring her in our Leaders in Medical Education Series.

How did you get interested in medicine and medical education?

Education is highly valued in my family of origin.  Both of my parents pursued education beyond what was typical of their generation and their circumstances.  So I always knew I would pursue a doctorate degree in some field.  It was during high school that I decided I wanted to be a physician.

During my training in medical school, I really enjoyed the work I did as part of a team of teachers and trainees (faculty, graduate medical trainees i.e. residents, and medical students).  When I completed my own training, I was interested in continuing to work in a setting where I could serve as a teacher.

What had driven your interest in family medicine?

I love hearing people’s stories and being part of their lives.  The best part of family medicine is the opportunity and privilege to know your patients and to hear their life stories – and to help them make sense of those stories and, within the context of their own lives, to be as healthy and happy as possible.

How would you propose we tackle the shortage of primary care physicians in the United States?

There is lots of research on this topic and it appears the source of our shortage of primary care physicians is multifactorial.  Primary care physicians are paid less than their specialist colleagues, they garner less respect from their physician colleagues, not all medical schools provide any encouragement for students to enter primary care, the lifestyle can be overly demanding, particularly for physicians practicing in underserved areas where professional colleagues – for consultation, collegiality, and shared work – are scarce.

What does your current role as Senior Associate Dean for Faulty Affairs and Faculty Development entail? Can you take us through a typicalday?

Team meetings, problem solving, one-on-one with faculty, chairs, administrators, writing, serving in a national role with the AAMC, patient care (one full day each week and an hour or so every other day), writing (both administratively – policies, email, positions – and professionally).

What are the most gratifying aspects of being a dean in a Medical School? How about the greatest challenges you face?

Most gratifying is the opportunity to learn and problem solve and create new things.  I love being part of a team of highly engaged, creative and optimistic faculty and staff colleagues who are excited about our work and our future.  The greatest challenge is time.  At some point each day, you do have to stop working – and taking time off on weekends and at holidays is good as well! But there is always more that can be done.  Great efficiency and strong team work can stretch time but at some point you have to put boundaries around your day and take time to disconnect from the work.

We often see many physicians get consumed by their work and burn out. I had seen that you had done some research on the Physician Satisfaction. Could you give two to three pieces of advice on achieving proper work-life balance?

There is an exercise frequently done in sessions about work life balance, about career planning, etc – that ask you to tell the ‘history of the future’ looking back from some distant vantage point, say your 80th birthday – and thinking about what you would like to have people say about you at that point in your life.  I have used a twist on that exercise when I have faced important decisions – in those situations, I ask myself, when I am eighty, looking back on this decision, what will I regret doing? Or not doing?

My decisions based on that exercise align with Steven Covey’s firs three habits of ‘begin with the end in mind’, ‘put first things first’ and ‘be proactive’ (which he lists in different order!).  The 80th birthday tool is beginning with the end in mind – when I look back, what do I want to see?  The ‘put first things first’ begins with deciding what is first – what is the top priority, it involves values’ driven decision making – what is most important to me?  For the past 20 years, that has been first and foremost my children, but it has also been my love of the rest of my family; my husband, parents and siblings along with my great enjoyment of providing primary care and of being of service to my patients and colleagues. The ‘be proactive’ is knowing that it is your responsibility to make things happen and then knowing where you want to go and doing what it takes to get there.