Deanships offer physicians chance to advance, serve

November 1, 2007

The ranks of ophthalmologists serving as medical school deans have grown by two in recent years. Eve J. Higginbotham, MD, assumed the position of dean at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta in 2006, and Carmen A. Puliafito, MD, MBA, began his tenure as dean of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on Nov. 1. They discuss how the transition provides an opportunity for personal growth and professional advancement, a chance to serve, and an occasion to strengthen ties between ophthalmology and the broader medical community.

Key Points

Eve J. Higginbotham, MD, assumed the position of dean and senior vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) in Atlanta in April 2006, and Carmen A. Puliafito, MD, MBA, began his tenure as the new dean of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles on Nov. 1.

Broader impact

Dr. Higginbotham said she began preparing for the move from department chairwoman to dean several years ago when she accepted a fellowship from the Association of American Medical Colleges' Council of Deans. She also attended the prestigious, in-depth Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program for Women, a program of the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership at the Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia.

"I was looking for a way to [have an] impact on academic medicine at a much broader level," she explained. "One of the turning points for me, in addition to the need to advocate for ophthalmology as a department chair in a large academic medical center, came when I was president of the Harvard Medical School Alumni Council. There, I really had an opportunity to view how influential the dean could be in changing the course of an institution."

Ophthalmology has been "marginalized," Dr. Higginbotham explained, in part because it is possible to have a fully accredited medical school without an ophthalmology department. The specialty is a rotation in, at most, only one-third of medical schools, she added.

"We need to reverse that trend if we are going to make sure vision remains an important component [of patient care] in the future," Dr. Higginbotham said.

"As dean, especially of a school whose mission is to serve the underserved and has a commitment to developing primary-care providers for the future, I felt it was a great opportunity for me to [pursue] my interest in bringing ophthalmology closer to the house of medicine as opposed to having it continue to be marginalized," she added. "When I have a chance to interact with other deans, I can certainly convey or reaffirm that message as well as [have an] impact on the education of medical students who will be taking care of us in the future."

Although MSM does not have a department of ophthalmology, Dr. Higginbotham said she keeps up with her specialty by seeing patients half a day a week at the Emory Eye Center. She also plans to begin scrubbing with the residents at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital to maintain a role in teaching.

She is active, as well, in clinical research through projects such as the Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study. "I still am very much involved in my field," she said.

As dean of the medical school, however, her responsibility is program-wide.

"We've been strengthening the infrastructure and building capacity for research as well as strengthening the clinical enterprise," she said.