Teaching: The best way to learn

5 tips on becoming a program director

DOs share their insights on what it takes and how to prepare to train the next generation of physicians.


For 25 years, David Garza, DO, enjoyed a thriving family medicine practice in the underserved border town of Laredo, Texas, where he built a name for himself and his practice and secured a loyal following of patients.

But he walked away from it all in favor of a new venture that would put his years of training to the ultimate test.

On July 1, Dr. Garza became the program director for Laredo’s first family medicine residency program. At Laredo Medical Center (LMC), the program is a collaboration between LMC, the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, and Gateway Community Medical Center. Dr. Garza is also serving as LMC’s director of medical education.

In addition to teaching clinical skills, Dr. Garza says, “One of my priorities is to help the residents hone their leadership skills in preparation for a very busy career, not only as physicians but as members of important teams in health care, business, professional organizations and civic activities.”

Along with those leadership skills, DOs interested in becoming program directors should consider several key factors to best prepare and succeed.

1. Take the initiative

Making strides in academic medicine requires ambition and initiative. Dr. Garza met the founding dean of UIWSOM and asked what role he could have in the development of the school. “When they decided they wanted to get some residencies going, I said, ‘Of course,’ ” he says. But before saying yes, Dr. Garza took time to earn an MEdL, a master of science in medical education leadership, to better prepare himself for a role in academic medicine.

“Don’t turn down opportunities,” says Tyree Winters, DO, associate program director of the pediatric residency program at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey. “Seek out ways to participate, especially in new residency programs that pop up. Or reach out to your former program director.”

Dr. Winters, who was the chief resident in his residency, reached out to his former program director to inquire about academic medicine. “He connected me with people to talk to, valuable resources and next steps.”

2. Practice

Although some residents make the decision to enter directly into academic medicine without practicing, Dr. Winters says that the benefits of learning hands-on patient care are integral to teaching. “Having experience with this condition, or this ailment and the corresponding remedies or approaches to advising and interacting makes a huge difference in your approach to medicine,” Dr. Winters says.

“I think I’m a better teacher because I practiced for five years, beyond just the theory of it all.”

Dr. Garza agrees. “Having been heavily involved on the front line of patient care and practice management for 25 years has afforded me the experiences that are difficult to obtain from a straight academic career alone.”

3. Start early

“If you think you want a career in academic medicine, look at the jobs you’re considering to see if they have an academic component,” Dr. Winters says. “Where there are opportunities to teach, or to serve as a preceptor, make sure you take them. Make sure you’re attending conferences on academic medicine.”

4. Respect the workload

Gina Shueneman, DO, is co-director of family medicine at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, where she shares the duties of leading the residency program with co-director Catherine Plonka, MD. “I think we make a great team,” Dr. Shueneman says. That spirit of partnership is necessary given the level of demand and workload. “It’s hard to balance my academic work and my clinical work,” Dr. Shueneman says. “I see patients part-time and administrate/teach the other. Being pulled in many different directions is hard, but always interesting.”

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work involved in running a residency program, says Dr. Winters. “There’s recruitment of prospective residents, and training our current residents, and evaluating those current residents and getting paperwork ready for those residents so they can go out and practice, and while all this is going on, we still see patients.”

5. Learn from your residents

For DOs interested in becoming program directors, Dr. Schueneman says, “Always be a role model, develop great relationships with co-workers and residents, be an excellent listener and surround yourself with great people.”

Dr. Winters says that being around residents has taught him more patience with himself and a greater appreciation of how everyone has different ways of learning. It also keeps him ahead of the curve. “It’s a thrill to work with residents because they keep you on your toes and they know the latest and greatest and current trends.”

Further reading:

The academic medicine life: Why it’s a calling for some DOs

Academic medicine: This DO found her calling in the classroom

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