Ophthalmologists giving back in a big way

October 15, 2006

A wonderful aspect about the position of department chairman is the opportunity to learn new skills, many of which are not taught in most U.S. medical schools nor enumerated in the Hippocratic oath. These include addressing the regulatory concerns of medical student and resident training program accreditation agencies with the vice dean for education; exploring the pros and cons of cash versus accrual accounting with the vice dean for finance; and dealing with personnel challenges/employment law/due process issues with the human resources staff and the vice dean for faculty.

A wonderful aspect about the position of department chairman is the opportunity to learn new skills, many of which are not taught in most U.S. medical schools nor enumerated in the Hippocratic oath. These include addressing the regulatory concerns of medical student and resident training program accreditation agencies with the vice dean for education; exploring the pros and cons of cash versus accrual accounting with the vice dean for finance; and dealing with personnel challenges/employment law/due process issues with the human resources staff and the vice dean for faculty.

The job of department chairman is a simple one: keep the dean happy (especially), keep the hospital president happy, keep your faculty happy, keep all the students and patients who come to your department happy, and keep your loved ones happy. As long as everyone is happy, a department chairman is assured that he or she can continue in the role. So yes it's a simple job. The only problem is that, having been on call the night before during my third-year surgery rotation, I slept through the lecture in medical school that covered these topics.

Those of you who run practices are familiar with many of these issues. If you are not in academics, then instead of a dean you likely have a spouse that you better especially keep happy. If, like me, you have no lecture notes on how to run a successful practice full of happy employees, you have learned how to do this since graduation. But department chairmen have the opportunity to do something that few other ophthalmologists do-fundraising.

So departments (especially in private medical schools) have to scramble for funds to support activities like education. But the public thinks of doctors as very highly paid, and not many philanthropic organizations have as a priority the support of educating new ophthalmologists. Some departments have their conferences supported at least partly by industry, but many physicians say those funds are "tainted," and this support should not be accepted (if you read the letters ophthalmologists send to Ophthalmology Times, you have seen a number of our colleagues argue this point most strongly).

But there's good news. There is a group of people that understands what it takes to provide an excellent education to ophthalmologists, and that group is stepping up to the plate to support that work. The group to which I refer is our fellow ophthalmologists. While there is no national database, to my knowledge, listing support of academic departments by ophthalmologists, if my own department is representative there is reason for optimism. In the past year, three ophthalmologists (who don't know each other) have endowed a lectureship on history and ethics in ophthalmology, established a professorship in ophthalmic education, and made a significant gift toward a professorship in the name of an admired former faculty member at the Wilmer Eye Institute (see related story of this issue, "Dr. de Juan Jr. endows $2.5M professorship at Wilmer"). In all three cases, there was no discernible benefit to the donor-no quid pro quo-except the simple goal of supporting education at this institution.

When it comes to our profession, a lot of news articles describe physicians as being neither generous tippers nor philanthropically minded.1 My own experience, however, is very much to the contrary. My hope is that departments of ophthalmology around the country will share news of similar generous donations by ophthalmologists. Such announcements in Ophthalmology Times would be fun to read, I think. With the challenges we face as a profession, we should celebrate the generosity of many whose gifts supporting education will help ensure future excellence in our field.