Valuing culture and mentorship: Q&A with John Carethers, M.D., chair of internal medicine

September 21, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

John Carethers, M.D., has served as chair of the Department of Internal Medicine since 2009.

At the time, his appointment was historic, as he became the first African-American chair of a U-M Medical School department.

Ever since, he has guided one of the organization’s largest departments to unprecedented success in patient care, education and research.

Recently, Headlines sat down with Carethers to discuss his term as chair, the challenges his teams face, where he sees the department going in the future and what his advice is for the next generation of leaders.

Check out what he had to say!

Q: What have you enjoyed the most about your current role as chair of internal medicine?

JC: The most enjoyable portion of my role as chair of internal medicine is engaging with our trainees, faculty and staff. In particular, great joy comes out of helping to guide someone’s career choice as well supporting through mentorship and/or with resources that help catapult a young person’s career trajectory.

I have been at Michigan long enough now to witness the maturation of several of our incredible faculty into funded researchers, valued teachers and sought-after clinicians. Their success is pushed by their drive to excel, and I and other leaders are just the sideline facilitators and mentors.  

I also value the culture of our staff, faculty and trainees in our department, who are all respectful, supportive and collegial toward each other. We have extremely thoughtful people who provide their input into some of the innovations and endeavors that our department has undertaken to help recognize their contributions and excellence.

We remain focused on enhancing all aspects of our tripartite mission — education, patient care, and research — to continue to make our Department of Internal Medicine the best in the country.

Q: What do you feel are the most pressing issues for the department in the future?

JC: Our department has and continues to work at the forefront of taking care of the majority of COVID-19 patients at Michigan Medicine, through our pulmonary and critical care specialists, our hospitalists, our infectious diseases specialists, as well as other subspecialties such as nephrology and cardiology for specific COVID-19-related complications.

Our internal medicine residents have been at the center of COVID-19 care as they are on much of the internal medicine general and subspecialty services. Likewise, our outpatient primary care physicians have aided in the primary intake as well as the follow-up care for many COVID-19 patients.

In this vein, the most pressing issue for the department in the short term is physician burnout, and surveys outline that it already exists.

As a leader, we have to not only be mindful of burnout, but also actively try to address it. The hard part is that there is no specific remedy, per se, for every situation, and it is welcome that our institution has commenced a Wellness Office that can aid and enhance our own Diversity, Inclusion and Well-being departmental office.

A second pressing issue is maintaining the manpower to cover COVID-19 surges, as some residents and physicians and staff may be out in quarantine due to breakthrough infection/exposure.

JC: Based on your own journey to become chair, what advice would you give to younger, potential leaders?

JC: My advice is to first learn your clinical craft well and eventually generate a focus on a scholarly area that you are strongly interested. Discoveries in basic and translational aspects of medicine that one can participate in are always exciting and doable with mentorship.

Medicine changes over time — procedures, policy, medications, approach to care, etc. — and there are plenty of aspects of medicine to be studied, optimized and learned from that hopefully can excite a person to further areas of research, which can eventually benefit our patients.

Find role models and talk to them, learn about the roles they have and use that time as an opportunity to potentially explore it for your own future. Having role models and mentors are key not only for scholarly work, but also for career advice and development. Slowly build leadership opportunities and demonstrate that while you are in that role that you are being a great servant leader. Such observations often lead to other higher leadership opportunities.

Q: How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not working or practicing medicine?

JC: I like taking in a good movie, having dinner with my wife and family, hiking in nature, watching sports such as football or basketball, attending a good jazz concert, and reading about something interesting or historical.