One by one, amid smiles and applause from peers and families, 21 members of the University of Colorado Department of Medicine’s clinical faculty took to the stage, donned crisp white lab coats adorned with special insignia, hoisted trophies, and heard words of praise from grateful patients and admiring colleagues.
Twenty MDs and a Doctor of Nursing Practice were inducted February 8 at a banquet in the Anschutz Health Sciences Building as the inaugural class of the department’s Clinical Excellence Society (CES), recognized as champions for their patients.
“This is an evening where we celebrate our finest, the best of the best,” Department of Medicine Chair Vineet Chopra, MD, MSc, told the audience. “It's a way to shower on them praise, elevation, and recognition.”
He added: “These are the doctors that patients get on the plane to come and see. They’re the ones that we want for our families, for our loved ones, and for people we care deeply about.”
In an earlier interview, Chopra explained that the CES program was launched to meet an unmet need – to recognize excellence in treating patients by medical faculty apart from their academic or research work.
“Most academic departments of medicine have recognition programs for education, for research, for equality, but very few of us have programs that promote and raise up what we think are the best clinical care providers,” he said. “And it’s an interesting conundrum in the sense that all of us go to medical school wanting to be the best doctors we can be.”
Some premier academic medical departments elsewhere “have been able to develop programs like the CES,” he said. “I came from an institution that had one, the University of Michigan. When I was interviewing for this job, I talked about how important this was to me, as somebody who still does clinical care.”
The program was founded over an 18-month period by Chopra along with Sunita Sharma, MD, the department’s Vice Chair for Faculty Development and Mentorship; and Christine Jones, MD, Associate Vice Chair for Mentorship. It was funded through an anonymous gift, and a new class will be inducted each year.
The CES inductees “are the go-to people,” Sharma said in an interview. “CES recognizes a group of people who are essential to the academic mission, but many times are overlooked with some of our traditional methods of recognition, and this is an opportunity for us to recognize them as the heroes they are.”
Addressing the gathering, CU School of Medicine Dean John Reilly, Jr., MD, alluded to the school’s work on developing its own clinical recognition program. “I think it is a fair observation of academic medicine that we do a better job of recognizing educational and research excellence than we do of clinical excellence,” Reilly told the audience, “and this society and this event, and what we're doing at the school level, is our attempt to put the clinical mission on the same recognition level as the other two legs of the three-legged stool.”
John Carethers, MD, vice chancellor for health sciences at the University of California San Diego, delivered the keynote address at the end of the evening. Carethers created a clinical-excellence program while chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan – a program that Chopra said he was “happy to copy here in Colorado.”
“You contribute as much as any researcher or educator here at the university,” Carethers told the CES inductees. “It’s a thrill to be here and it’s a thrill to be in your presence.”
Reviewed by best doctors
For the inaugural CES class, each division in the CU Department of Medicine submitted the names of up to two people. Inductees were chosen based on voluminous application files that included testimonials from division leaders, peers, and patients and their families. “Then we sent them out to the best doctors in the country,” who scored the packages, Chopra said.
Beyond being recognized for their clinical work, CES inductees will serves as advisors to the Department of Medicine leadership team on identifying future inductees, on ways to build clinical excellence, and on addressing such issues as burnout, wellness, and equity.
Sharma presided over the inductee role call and read from the honorees’ testimonials as each was summoned to the stage.
Meet the inductees
Here are the CES inductees, along with excerpts from Sharma’s comments about them. (Except as noted, the inductees practice primarily at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.)
Rebecca Allyn, MD, associate professor, Division of Hospital Medicine, practicing at Denver Health – “fellow hospitalist Dr. Mark Reid wrote of Dr. Allyn, ‘Her daily practice stands as an undeniable testimony to how things should be done. Her mood is never sour, demonstrating the aequanimitas—the infectious calm—of a seasoned clinician. She stays jolly and stifles misery. The patients, after all, are the sick ones. Our task is to help, not to suffer along. Her balance is never cold. She spots the tragedies and sees her patients’ pain. She avoids picking up the suffering that would handicap her ability to help.”
Melver Anderson, MD, professor, Division of Hospital Medicine, practicing at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center – “The wife of a former patient of Dr. Anderson writes, ‘It has taken me six weeks to finally be able to thank you for all that you did for my husband. Your wisdom, knowledge, and kindness at the worst time in our lives will never be forgotten. You were a wonderful attending doctor to the medical students, interns, and residents under your supervision and most especially the care you showed both my husband and I will never be forgotten.’”
Virginia Borges, MD, professor, Division of Medical Oncology – “Dr. Borges writes, ‘It is of paramount importance to me that my patients are on an equal playing field for the opportunity to care, regardless of who they are or where they are in life.’ It is her duty, Dr. Borges says, to act as her patients’ guide or navigator, and to help return a sense of control to them, something that patients who have been diagnosed with cancer are typically robbed of.”
Todd Bull, MD, professor, Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care – “Dr. Bull writes in his clinical mission statement, ‘Our patients and their families allow us into their lives in highly personal and intimate ways. Sometimes, we are allowed to share moments of joy and triumph. Other times we see them at their most vulnerable, in times of great stress or sadness. Always, we are invited into their lives with the request to help.’ Dr. Bull goes on to describe that this trust between his patients, their families, and himself defines his philosophy. Dr. Bull aims always to be worthy of this trust.”
Lakshmi Chauhan, MD, assistant professor, Division of Infectious Diseases – “Former Division Head Dr. Eric Poeschla writes in his nomination letter that Dr. Chauhan “is truly one of those few physicians I would want called to my beside if I was flat on my back in an ICU, febrile, and no one could figure out what was going on. She has a deeply compassionate, patient way with patients, and has been devoted to care of the underserved.’”
Ronald Colson, MD, assistant professor, Division of General Internal Medicine – “The daughter of a former patient writes, ‘I wanted to thank you for the amazing care you provided my dad over the past several years, and most particularly over the last months as his condition declined. You not only did house calls and made your cell phone number available, but you were patient and always compassionate. It is hard to watch a parent decline, but it was so comforting knowing that he was getting the best care anyone can get.’”
Lisa Forman, MD, professor, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology – “Dr. James R. Burton, professor and section head of Hepatology, writes, ‘I know if I were to experience liver disease or any of my family members or friends were to need a hepatologist, Dr. Forman undoubtably would be the one person I would recommend from our group.’ Patients echo this sentiment. One writes, ‘She was like a bright light coming into my life.’”
Jonathan Gutman, MD, professor, Division of Hematology – “Dr. Gutman writes, ‘I became a physician because I wanted to take care of patients,’ continuing, ‘I try to be direct, honest, compassionate, and humorous with my patients.’ This humanism becomes particularly salient when he describes ‘guiding patients through the extremely challenging journey of a stem cell transplant.’ One of his most important clinical responsibilities, he writes, is ‘to be helping patients and their families navigate situations when outcomes are not what we hope.’”
Alice Gray, MD, professor, Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine – Dr. Gray writes, ‘I want those who are disadvantaged by poverty, structural racism, and other barriers to be able to get a lung transplant and live long and healthy lives. I want patients to trust that their care team is always giving them their very best, even when it is sleepless nights taking donor calls and breaking the difficult news that transplant is not an option.’”
Fernando Holguin, MD, professor, Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine – “One patient writes, “I have been a patient of Dr. Holguin for approximately seven years and have found Dr. Holguin to be a very competent doctor; his clinical presentation is one which instills confidence, trust, and thoroughness with me. Most importantly, Dr. Holguin is a warm, caring, attentive, and compassionate doctor. Dr. Holguin takes the time to inquire about family, never makes me feel as though he is hurried, fully answers all my questions and concerns, and has a bedside manner allowing for openness and comfort.’”
Timothy Jenkins, MD, associate professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, practicing primarily at Denver Health – “Dr. Jenkins writes his medical career is shaped by caring for the underserved, writing, ‘Every person deserves the highest quality health care and we must always strive to do better.’ This focus on providing ‘people experiencing homelessness, people who have substance use disorders and may use injection drugs, people who are not documented, people with mental health illnesses, people involved with justice system’ with equitable and outstanding infectious disease health care is the core of Dr. Jenkins’ clinical mission.”
Jason Kolfenbach, MD, associate professor, Division of Rheumatology – “A patient feedback form reads, ‘Dr. Kolfenbach is an incredibly great doctor. He listens well during my visit and discusses my care in great detail. I often leave my appointment feeling Dr. K must have spent hours reviewing my history and coming up with a plan on how we will proceed. He is genuinely interested in my success. I am truly impressed with Dr. Kolfenbach’s knowledge and experience: I trust him with my life!’”
Juan Lessing, MD, associate professor, Division of Hospital Medicine -- Dr. Lessing’s clinical philosophy is founded on three principles: That ‘exceptional patient care includes working to ensure that patients and family feel well cared for, that getting the diagnosis right is essential to best care, and that mastery comes from reflection and deliberate, intentional practice.’ A colleague in the Division of Hospital Medicine wrote, ‘There are patients who come back to the hospital explicitly asking for Dr. Lessing by name, even though it had been several years since they were last hospitalized.’”
Christopher Lieu, MD, associate professor, Division of Medical Oncology – “Dr. Lieu’s clinical mission is seeking cutting-edge therapies at the programmatic level while providing each individual patient with exceptional clinical care. Dr. Lieu does this through honesty, working patients to set realistic expectations while preserving hope and dignity. Dr. Lisa Fosnot, an associate professor of Hospital Medicine, writes of Dr. Lieu, ‘His compassionate nature stands out prominently. He does not merely perform his duties; he does so with genuine care and concern for the well-being of his patients and colleagues alike.’”
Jeremy Long, MD, associate professor, Division of General Internal Medicine, practicing primarily at Denver Health – “His work in relationship building, in remaining steadfast in humanistic philosophy, is demonstrative of Dr. Long’s clinical excellence. A handwritten letter from a former patient’s spouse reads, ‘I was extremely impressed to see you at my husband’s funeral service. And your words of compassion and care meant so much. He cared for you a lot --- we both did. You are very special, and I will always remember how much you helped us.’”
Michael McDermott, MD, professor, Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes – “A patient from out of town writes that Dr. McDermott ‘went out of his way to accommodate me with an appointment when I was here visiting my daughter. I could tell that he spent time thoroughly reviewing my chart ahead of time. He spent a great deal of time explaining my condition and his recommendations in a clear and understandable manner. He was kind and compassionate about my situation. He made me feel much more optimistic about my condition and would highly recommend him!’”
Bennett Parnes, MD, associate professor, Division of Geriatric Medicine -- Dr. Parnes prides himself in being an ‘activist primary care provider.’ He aims to be aware of all medical and psychiatric problems that have occurred since a patient’s last visit. Dr. Parnes spends time in advance of visits reviewing charts, tracking down these visits’ notes, and connecting with the teams that have treated his patients. Dr. Parnes continues this active role in his patient care by involving specialists when he needs them, seeing these specialists as ‘part of the team, along with me, for the patient.’"
Robert Quaife, MD, professor, Division of Cardiology – “Dr. Quaife’s reputation as a provider willing to do almost anything for his patients is well known. Dr. Joseph Cleveland, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery here at CU writes, ‘Dr. Quaife is one of the most caring people I have ever met. He will escort strangers, walking them to the appropriate elevator to make an appointment. He truly serves his patients and any visitor to our sprawling medical campus with respect and no task is beneath him.’”
Jeanie Youngwerth, MD, associate professor, Division of General Internal Medicine -- A former patient’s daughter writes, ‘Jeanie, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you did to make our final journey with Dad, and his final journey, so remarkably special and beautiful. I can tell you my entire family took great solace in your comforting guidance and thoughtful discussions. I know for me, and I believe especially for the grandchildren who were present, it was so nice and wonderful to hear each member of the family share so many stories and feelings about Dad.’”
Maria Vejar, DNP, assistant professor, Division of Geriatrics – “Ms. Vejar writes that her philosophy as a geriatric nurse practitioner is to ‘demonstrate understanding, acceptance, hope, and compassion for all those who entrust their care to me. I understand that each person comes to me with a life story and experience that has shaped how they view themselves, their self-worth, and purpose in life.’”
Matthew Zipse, MD, associate professor, Division of Cardiology – “Dr. David Lee and NP Che Pimentel, of Montrose Regional Health, write that, over the last three years of collaboration with Dr. Zipse, more than 100 patients have been referred his way from their rural catchment area of mountainous resort towns and smaller agricultural areas. Dr. Lee and Mr. Pimentel continue that despite this incredibly diverse patient population, all their patients who have seen Dr. Zipse, without exception, comment ‘on his willingness to spend time with them, and his ability to make complicated medical issues and procedures understandable.’”
Photo at top: Inductees pose for a photo with Department of Medicine Chair Vineet Chopra, MD, at the CU Department of Medicine inaugural Clinical Excellence Society induction ceremony, February 8, 2024, at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Photo by Paul Wedlake for the CU Department of Medicine.