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How and Why We Reward Physician Excellence at University Hospitals

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UH Clinical Update | November 2022

By Cliff Megerian, MD, FACS
Chief Executive Officer
Jane and Henry Meyer Chief Executive Officer Distinguished Chair

In academic medicine, there is a history of bestowing progressive honors and honorific titles on physicians. It’s a practice that has been built into the American health care arena for many years, and it is what we had here at University Hospitals for most of our 156-year history.

This tradition is based around the notion of a physician having a title as a professor, associate professor, assistant professor or instructor. That system certainly has significant merit, and it was built around the physician’s scholarly contribution to the field of medicine or particular specialty.

Under this system, UH physicians who have risen up the academic promotion pathway are rightly rewarded for their ability to contribute knowledge through research and innovative thinking around medicine, as measured by their publications, books and research grants.

But about six years ago, as the then-president of UH Physician Services, I recognized that this approach misses rewarding and recognizing physicians whose contributions remain within the realm of simply being a great doctor.

In other words, you can have a brilliant doctor who everybody calls upon when something goes wrong -- perhaps with their own heart or their patient’s heart. That physician is, for example, dedicated to cardiology excellence at the bedside, taking calls, teaching residents and doctors. However, with the demands of a busy practice, he or she may not have had the time to also embark upon a scholarly publication- and grant-making career.

So we had no honorific program, or system of bestowing titles, for the multitude of physicians within the UH health system. Their contributions, at times, may have appeared to have been missed by the standard promotion cycle and promotion architecture.

That’s why I then got together with UH physician leaders, Drs. Bill Annable, Bob Salata, Physician-in-Chief, University Hospitals, and the STERIS Chair of Excellence in Medicine, and Dan Simon, President, Academic & External Affairs and Chief Scientific Officer and the Ernie and Patti Novak Distinguished Chair in Health Care Leadership, and we started thinking about creating an award based purely on physician excellence. This would honor those we call “the doctor’s doctor,” meaning the doctor who everyone turns to for an answer around a problem in their particular field, the most trusted resource, the hardest-working colleague.

We decided to go on a tour and/or survey other iconic longstanding hospital systems, which included the Mayo Clinic, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, NYU Langone Hospitals, Johns Hopkins Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia and Cornell, Massachusetts General Hospital, Hospitals of the University of Pennsylvania, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

We wanted to see what kinds of programs they had for this kind of honor, how those were developed and run, and then our program adapted elements of several. On a side note: Dr. Annable tells me that in the past two years we have received calls from other hospitals looking to establish a program like ours. So in a relatively short time, we have gone from seeking advice to giving it.

We distilled what we learned and then created our own criteria for what we named our Distinguished Physician awards. Now, each year, we nominate a list of people for UH doctors to vote on – in every field of medicine that would meet the criteria.

It’s important for me to note here that certainly, some of the doctors who are voted upon and win also have an academic career and are titled at the senior professor level, while others are focused to a high degree on their clinical practice.

2022 UH Distinguished Physicians class photo at ceremony2022 UH distinguished Physician Class at Nov.9 awards ceremony.

The only downside for me was that in its first year, the Distinguished Physician awards reminded me of the first year of the Rock & Roll Museum’s Hall of Fame inductions. In their first year, they couldn’t very well name the Beatles, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles – to name just a very few of the century’s dozens upon dozens of groundbreaking musicians. They could only name a certain number the first year, and each following year. Similarly, for logistical reasons, we limited ourselves to a certain number of physicians that first year and a similar number each of the following years – lately, around 40 or so.

Now we are in our fifth year, and we just keep adding more and more of our worthiest – making sure that over time all of these physicians are ultimately identified and rewarded.

What we do differently at UH with this award is that when you ultimately are designated a Distinguished Physician, you are given a new title that you can use on your business card, and on your CV. People externally know what this means – that this is a notable award for your hard work and your dedication to your patients.

The awards ceremony, which this year was held on Nov. 9 and honored 42 physicians, is a very formal ceremony. Each honored physician receives a white coat that only Distinguished Physicians have, which on its left pocket features the original seal of University Hospitals. The coat also has the physician’s name with the title of Distinguished Physician. Additionally, each honoree receives a diamond-encrusted UH pin, also featuring the seal.

2022 Distinguished Physician coating ceremony, Drs. Megerian Miller presenting Dr. with white coatDrs. Cliff Megerian (left) and Chris Miller (back) present Dr. Paula Parker-Deuley, a 2022 Distinguished Physician awardee, with the Distinguished Physician white coat.

Having said all this, when I became CEO, I realized that while we created this wonderful way to honor our 2,500 physicians, we also have nearly 8,000 nurses who did not have the opportunity for such an honor. So I worked very closely with our Chief Nursing Executive, Michelle Hereford, the Ethel Morikis Endowed Chair in Nursing Leadership, and earlier this month, we had our first ceremony for Distinguished Nurses. You can read more about the criteria for those awards here, and the inaugural class of winners here.

All this is part of our new UH culture: recognizing excellence and thereby inspiring others to also strive to be their best.

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