July 11, 2019

Wrist bands to name tags: new faces and stories fuel VUMC – Rounds

Dr. Jeff Balser, CEO, started to learn how a person’s story impacts health and delivering care as a high school student selling newspapers room to room.

by Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

My first job in health care was selling newspapers room to room in the hospital in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana. It was an era with a lot less security and infection precautions! Some of the patients had short stays, as they do today, but in those days, people often stayed in the hospital for weeks, giving me the opportunity to get to know them.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

They would sometimes share things I sensed they might not be sharing with their doctors and nurses — or even their families. Perhaps they felt it was safe to talk to me. After all, I was just the paperboy.

Although as a high schooler I didn’t have the background to understand medicine, what I did learn was every patient in those rooms was a person with a story. I didn’t fully understand it then, but what I now know is oftentimes those stories related to why someone needed treatment.

Our stories are fundamental to our health and the care we need. And for those of us working at VUMC, our own stories impact our interactions with one another, and even how we deliver care.

Every day and night people come to VUMC to get care, and each person — whether wearing a wrist band or a name tag — has a story. The individual narrative is always the undercurrent influencing that person’s perception and memory of the experience.

This time of year, I think about the new faces joining us at the Medical Center — which I like to describe to people as a great big health system surrounding a tiny red schoolhouse.

July is a time when new residents may feel like they are in a movie thriller and the car chase won’t stop. And our new medical students are blank pages looking to all of us for not only knowledge, but insight into the human dimension of the career journey they chose.

Each person worked hard and excelled to get here to work and learn alongside you. As a world-renowned academic medical center, we’re not only training the next wave of the health care workforce — we are shaping the next generation of leaders.

Whether the new face you’re looking at is a new learner or a new patient — they chose to be at Vanderbilt University Medical Center at a pivotal moment in their life.

They arrive, full of anticipation and expectation, even as we are all feeling the escalating pressures of health care. We’re navigating our expanding enterprise through an era when change and pressure are the norm, not the exception.

Patients want a different experience than a decade, or even five years, ago. How we harness all the data gushing into the EHR with every single patient interaction has become central to not only the care we provide and whether we can be reimbursed for our care, but also whether an ever more information-savvy patient population will choose us.

Expenses outpace revenue. That refrain echoes across hospitals in all corners of the country. Some of your friends and family across Tennessee may be thinking about their care options in the wake of a closed hospital.

These don’t have to be headwinds for VUMC. They are opportunities to deploy our expertise with agility; to lead by example through our extraordinary capacity for discovery and innovation.

The academic medical center welcoming each patient and future leader this month is very different from the hospital where I sold newspapers, and even the place I started as a 22-year-old Vanderbilt med student.

I’m excited to be here at this moment, working alongside each of you to advance what we know about medicine, to treat more people in new ways, and to train the people who will be the next teachers and leaders. It’s how we live and how we work.

When you encounter new faces this month, take an extra moment to get to know them — and reflect on why it’s so important to be at VUMC. I’m grateful you are here — at this time, in this place.


Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine