Ross University Blog

ALUMNI: Ross Grad Earns Award for Leadership of Residency Program

December 09, 2016

Each year, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) honors outstanding residency program directors with the Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Award. This award recognizes those who find innovative ways to teach residents and provide quality care, while remaining connected to the initial empathetic impulse felt by so many physicians.

The award’s namesake believed that good teaching requires courage—the courage to explore the unknown and challenge convention, as well as the courage to give it one’s all despite an all too common lack of recognition. This year, that courage is exemplified by award recipient and Ross alumnus Curtis Whitehair, MD (‘00).

Dr. Whitehair is the associate medical director of regional physiatry at MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, where he’s responsible for overseeing all ambulatory physician services. He is the vice chair of education in the Department of Rehabilitation at Georgetown University Medical Center and associate professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He is also the program director of the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital/National Rehabilitation Hospital (GUH/NRH) PM&R Residency Training Program—it was in this role, specifically, that he was recognized by the ACGME.

When Whitehair first came on board as director, the residency program was on probation. Poster presentations were rare. Today, under Dr. Whitehair’s leadership, the program has transformed into one that graduates top-scoring residents—this year, 11 of Dr. Whitehair’s 18 residents scored above the 90th percentile, with 10 of those scoring above the 96th percentile, in the Self-Assessment Exam for Residents (SAE-R).

“We have at least three papers that are being published this year from our residents,” he adds. “Two years ago, we had 40 poster abstracts accepted and, in the last five years, we’ve had more poster abstracts accepted than any other entity at national meetings. This award has my name on it, but it’s a reflection of our program, the incredible team of people in it who are willing to try new ideas, and all that the residents have accomplished as a result.”

Here are just some of the reasons why Dr. Whitehair was recognized with the Courage to Teach Award.

He Looks Ahead.

“Too often, we develop curriculum that gets you through your residency training,” Dr. Whitehair says. “But if all I’ve done is gotten you through, you may not be prepared for what happens five years after you graduate. We want our residents to be prepared for that, too, so that’s why I tell applicants when they’re interviewing that we developed what I call a horizon curriculum.”

Dr. Whitehair’s “horizon curriculum” looks at the technology that may be at physicians’ fingertips later in their careers, and starts to implement it in residency. For example, five years ago when musculoskeletal ultrasounds arrived at the forefront, Whitehair and his team revamped their program to include a month-long rotation on the technology.

Similarly, Dr. Whitehair created a cancer rehabilitation program before it became mainstream. “We are willing to jump on those bandwagons early, and really immerse ourselves in those opportunities for our residents,” he adds. “It helps our residents stay ahead of the curve in what’s coming for them when they graduate.”

He Trains for the Real World.

In addition to integrating emerging technologies into training, Dr. Whitehair also makes sure to prepare residents for the realities of practice. One way he’s done that is by establishing a continuity clinic that’s one of a kind.

During their second year, residents learn about a patient under the guidance of a fourth-year resident, and stick with that patient throughout the duration of the three-year program. By the time they’ve reached their fourth year, they’re guiding the next class of second-year residents on that same patient. “The residents see these patients as theirs, and if that patient calls, they will get paged while they’re on the floor regardless of what service they’re on,” says Dr. Whitehair. “And, if one team member is away, the other team members must find a way to cover. That’s how it works in the real world.”

But the payoff of this training technique isn’t limited to the residents. Dr. Whitehair also points out that patients get better care when there’s continuity. Not only do patients feel more comfortable with doctors they have gotten to know (no revolving door here!), but outcomes can be improved when residents develop such an intimate understanding of the patient in this way. “There are things you don’t put into a medical record, like family dynamics, which can have an impact on care,” says Dr. Whitehair. “It is a huge advantage to the patient and the doctor when there is a yearlong transition period of onboarding a new resident to the case, under the guidance of the existing resident.”

He’s Tackling Industry Challenges.

Beginning with their first year in the program, residents are trained in the science behind quality improvement and patient safety. This training evolves throughout the residency, to include “doing more than the minimum requirements,” says Dr. Whitehair. “The big issue is answering the question: What can we do to keep patients safer while they’re in the hospital?”

Dr. Whitehair starts with leaving the lecture hall. “There are guidelines that say you should teach residents about transition of care, for example, and some programs offer one lecture and check that box,” he says. “We have the residents work on projects about how to effectively do that transition of care. They aren’t just sitting in a lecture. They are working on projects that have an outcome in these areas.”

He Leads by Example.

Sensitivity and compassion for patients is something that, one might argue, cannot be taught. But Dr. Whitehair sets an example for his residents that he hopes will set the bar for patient interactions. “It starts with how we treat the residents themselves,” he explains. His office is right next door to the resident lounge, and he meets with them once per week. He strives to be involved with the residents, rather than dictating from an ivory tower. “I am a very open person, and I want them to know they can get in touch with me and that I’ll listen,” he says. “I want to show them that I personally care, and that we as an institution care, and that hopefully instills in them that this is the care you should give your patients.”

He Keeps Momentum.

“A lot of programs out there find the secret sauce and keep it that way, but if you actually look at the science and business world, the top companies don’t usually stay at the top forever,” Dr. Whitehair says. “We are always looking for ways to improve and take this program to a new level. We’re not chasing awards. We’re just trying to make this a really great place for people to learn, and I think that’s what we’re doing. And I want to keep that momentum going.”  

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Tags: Alumni , Residency , Innovation

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