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Spotlight: Maintaining Vitality in Academic Medicine

An interview with Dr. Jeannette South-Paul, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Three days shy of a much deserved vacation, Dr. Jeannette South-Paul, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, shared her practical professional and personal strategies for maintaining her vitality in academic medicine.

Dr. South-Paul spent 22 years practicing and teaching family medicine in the US Army and served as Uniformed Services University of the Health Services’ first Vice President for Minority Affairs affording her the opportunity to create formal mentoring programs that matched students with residents, faculty and practicing physicians. In 2001, Colonel South-Paul retired as Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at USUHS. Today she is the first woman and first African-American to serve as Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Her distinguished teaching and administrative roles have not gone unnoticed; Dr. South-Paul recently received the prestigious Joy McCann Foundation award for her accomplished work in mentoring.

Dr. South-Paul, you made a significant transition from government culture to a private medical health system in the midst of a major merger. How did you manage the new challenges?

“In my new position as Chair of Family Medicine at Pittsburgh I quickly had to balance three competing priorities of medical school dean, health system CEO, and my own faculty. I knew the value and importance of assessing the environment by identifying key players when entering an established department. I listened to and supported seasoned faculty, and met individually with faculty and staff to find out what motivates them. I was always aware that being patient and knowing tasks take time, often more time than we planned. It is so important to know who is on board with my agenda and vision.

“Often we find ourselves doing lots of conflict management rather than work. You can be the smartest scientist, but the things that trip us up are human relationships." Through the process (merger), I never forgot that I was leading bright people and kept my mission and vision out front.”

What factors should we consider when barriers arise to our visions and plans?

“When you come to a barrier, don’t abandon your vision but rather re-think it or re-direct the plan. Consider bringing in external advisors. Failure to see significant gains after investing time, energy, and resources could be due to several factors:

  • Wrong people working on the project/task. Change them.
  • Not enough staff assigned to project/task. Add the right staff.
  • Approach might be all wrong. Adjust it.
  • Mission might be off/wrong. Review it.
  • Wrong timing to initiate project/task. Re-think it.

What steps do you take to ensure that you are assessing your own level of vitality accurately?

“Fortunately at Pittsburgh our dean, Dr. Art Levine has established a formal and extensive annual performance review that requires faculty to document and collect professional accomplishments, including academic responsibilities, presentations, national contributions, and community involvement. The formal review process for Chairs consists of a 15- page list of goals and objectives that drives a 30-minute discussion with a four-member panel (dean, CEO of health system, president of the practice plan, and VP of physician services). By the end of the meeting, you either have a good assessment of your work or understand you need to revisit your objectives.”

Personally, to assess my own vitality, I found a couple of colleagues that I respect and trust to provide honest and open feedback. These important conversations are not about whining or complaining, but rather these exchanges are a chance to talk out loud and strategize about how to be more productive, lead effectively, and end up with smart solutions.”

To stay true to myself I have my own personal mission: to help in improving the health status of disadvantaged people of color. I’m committed to giving back and increasing the number of minority physicians and am constantly looking for opportunities that support my personal mission, while I am very careful not to allow my personal mission derail my primary mission as department chair.

Similar to being on a treadmill, the world keeps us running no matter what. We can slow the treadmill down, stay on, or get off, but we are responsible for making the necessary adjustments. We determine our own reality. I spend time with family and friends to keep appropriately centered. We are all busy and “life does happen”--staff resign, family members become ill. More importantly, I recognize I must rely and depend on a higher source of power and energy other than my own.”  

How would you recommend faculty maintain professional and personal vitality?

 “We can’t do this work alone. We need each other!”

  • Build solid professional working relationships with colleagues both inside and outside your institution and academic medicine. Look for people you trust and respect to help you strategize and work through challenges.
  • Spend time with family and friends. They provide the energy you need to do the important work we do.
  • Develop a personal mission to strive for other than your career mission. Then work to incorporate your personal mission whenever appropriate into your career mission.
  • When you get off track or derailed, identify what lessons you can learn from the situation and move on. Don’t let the situation take charge of you!
  • Find a mentor, someone who is invested in your success.

When do you see organizations exhibit high vitality? What are the indicators of organizational vitality that we should look for?

“If an organization is thriving and vital, it means that it is doing much more than crisis management. When organizations take the time to plan, develop goals and objectives, and create missions and visions this signals a healthy, active, vital system/institution. Academic medicine has a history of rewarding individual accomplishments. There is no way you can do all that you want to do all by yourself. It’s all about relationships. Organizations that encourage and support partnerships and collaborations are going to be more successful and come out on top.”

Thank you, Dr. South-Paul.

Dr. Jeannette South-Paul is also featured in the NIH-National Library of Medicine exhibit, Changing the Face of Medicine External Link.

Faculty Vitae

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To inquire about updates to information published in Faculty Vitae, please e-mail Valarie Clark at vclark@aamc.org.

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