Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Karen Nichols, Dean of the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine

Jimmy Pham
Jul 12, 2015

Karen J. Nichols, D.O. is the Dean of the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University. She is a graduate of the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences - College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City, Missouri with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree as well as an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the same institution.

Dr. Nichols is very active in organized medicine, currently serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Osteopathic Association, and having served as President of two of its constituent societies. She is the founding chair of the AOA End of Life Care committee and has published and lectured nationally on this topic.

How did you first become interested in medicine? Medical Education?
Medicine is my second career. I was a medical technologist, actually the Chief of the laboratory of Phoenix General Hospital. I enjoyed the work but always felt that there was so much more the patient care than the small piece I provided through the lab. When our pathologist encouraged me to go to medical school, off I went. (After 2 years of completing all the prerequisites and taking the MCAT!) After 12 years in the private practice of internal medicine, MWU/AZCOM came into being and I started working there one day a week, while continuing my full time practice. After five years of 18 hour days, I was ready to make the leap into full time medical education.

Can you describe your background? 
I became the Dean of MWU/CCOM in 2002. I had been on the board of the American Osteopathic Association for a couple of years and had just finished my term as President of the American College of Osteopathic Internists. So I really enjoyed combining my clinical practice background with my experience in organized medicine and then tackling the steep learning curve of upper management of osteopathic medical education. It has been my experience that you need to identify your gifts as a human being and follow where that path leads you. My gifts are in leadership and relationship-building. As a woman graduating from osteopathic medical school in the early 80's, I found there were very few women in medicine and even fewer in leadership. However I also found that working very hard and building relationships along the way led to opening up the leadership opportunities. I've been the first woman to hold almost every position I've ever taken on. My goal is not to the first woman, but to be the best leader.

How do you view the future of osteopathic medicine?
It has never been brighter. For many years we have been called "the best kept secret in medicine." That just isn't the case any more. While the increasing number of DO schools brings many challenges, it also brings awareness of our wonderful profession to new and appreciative audiences. With the new Single Accreditation System for Graduate Medical Education, the numbers and types of doors that are opening can't be counted. We practice medicine the way the American public wants. We don't have the corner on that market as many MDs are looking at their patients more holistically and starting to appreciate what osteopathic medicine brings to the table.

What are 2-3 changes you would make to the current medical education system? Health care system?
We need more inter-professional collaboration in training and practice. Physicians can't provide the full array of aspects of patient care and need to understand how to work with the different professions. Further, I wish we had more economical ways to train our physicians and provide medical care. Changes are coming in our approaches in both arenas. Additionally, physicians need to embrace the leadership potential that leads them to become physicians in the first place. I like to say that leadership must be learned and earned, not degreed and decreed. We are moving in that direction as well.

Do you have any final thoughts on the medical profession as a whole?
I think every DO and MD needs to remember that the practice of our profession is a sacred trust given to us by our patients. It is not about satisfying our ego; it's not about making money; it's not about the next diagnostic challenge; it's about taking care of someone's mother, someone's son, someone's grandmother. The public holds physicians in high regard and we must honor that trust. We are assumed to be skilled and knowledgeable in what we do. That makes us good physicians. But that is not enough. We must understand that our patients don't really care what we know until they know that we care. That's what makes us great physicians; great OSTEOPATHIC physicians!