A medical student who thinks he wants a career in academic surgery asks, “You were deep into academic medicine and walked away from chairman, program director, etc. Why?”

[Background: For over 23 years, I was a full-time surgical chairman and residency program director in three different community hospitals affiliated with medical schools.]

Good question. For many years I had always said something like: “No matter what crisis happens with the residents or the chairman’s job, it pales in comparison to having a patient with a complication.” In other words, nonclinical problems were annoying but manageable.

Then one day I realized that was no longer so. Patients with complications still caused me many sleepless nights, and that hadn’t changed. What had changed was that resident issues and administrative hassles finally became intolerable.

The rules set by the accrediting bodies, the ACGME and the Residency Review Committee (RRC) for Surgery, had always been difficult to comply with, especially for a small program. They became more onerous every year or 2 until it reached the point where I can’t imagine how anyone can stand it. Residents can complain to the RRC anonymously and no matter how factually you refute the complaint, the RRC always believes the disgruntled resident. Add in the work hours rules and the lack of motivation of some of today’s med school graduates and I had had enough.

The position of surgical chairman in a community teaching hospital is like that of a football referee. At any given time, half your constituency is not happy with you. The administration pays your salary and expects you to spout the party line. But you need your attending surgeons to treat the residents well and support the program. You often have to make decisions that are guaranteed to alienate many people.

A lot of energy was spent investigating complaints. Families were unhappy with the residents; attending surgeons were unhappy with the residents and vice-versa; nurses were unhappy with the residents and/or the attendings; someone was rude to someone else; someone shouted; someone cried, and on and on.

And the site visits: Drop everything; the state is here to investigate a case or the state is here to interview the residents about their work hours. The Joint Commission is coming in 6 months. We need to meet twice a week to make up for all the unnecessary but JC-mandated stuff we haven’t been doing for the last 2.5 years. Countless hours were spent buffing up the paperwork for an RRC site visit. I think that’s where I learned creative writing.

And the meetings. Risk management meetings could last 3 hours, during which time you would have the opportunity to try to explain why a surgical complication occurred to a room full of non-surgeon MDs and non-physician administrators. We used to deal with this sort of thing quite effectively at morbidity and mortality conferences.

Then there were the committees. At one of my former hospitals I was either chairman or a member of the following committees: Pharmacy, Critical Care, Infection, Medical Executive, Operating Room, Surgical Performance Improvement, Strategic Planning Work Group, Product Evaluation, Library, Clinical Leadership Group, Cancer, Trauma, Budget, Graduate Medical Education, and Risk Management. I’ll save you the trouble; that’s 15 committees.

For a long time, I enjoyed being a residency program director. I am proud of the more than 50 chief residents I helped train. I view them as my legacy. I regret that running a program and teaching residents stopped being fun a few years ago. I also liked being a chairman until medicine took a turn toward the dark side.

I could go on but this post would reach 20,000 words.

So my young friend, think long and hard about that decision to become an academic chair.

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 900 page views per day, and he has over 5,400 followers on Twitter.