Q&A: Get to Know Dr. Charles Griffith, Acting Dean

Charles "Chipper" Griffith, MD, has taken over as acting dean for the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. Get to know him more in the following Q&A.

Q: Why did you want to become a doctor?

A: Folks think I am joking or being self-deprecating but it is true: I decided to become a doctor my third year of medical school. Growing up I thought I was going to be a major league baseball pitcher, but that delusion vanished in college at Vanderbilt. So my father (the best doctor I know) was a pediatrician in my small home-town of Gadsden, Alabama, he encouraged me to keep doors open and take pre-med classes. So I did, and I did fine, but to be completely honest with myself, I drifted into medical school at Vanderbilt, I didn’t really have the “fire” to be the doctor my patients would deserve.  In the 1980s, the first two years of medical school were almost exclusively in the classroom. But when I started my third year clinical clerkships and got to be a part of taking care of patients, hearing their stories, having them invite me, a student, into their lives, this overwhelmed me with the privilege and its accompanying sacred responsibility of that invitation. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than being a physician. I feel so blessed that I have been able to be a part of this profession, even if I came to it in an unorthodox manner.

Q: What made you want to pursue medical education?

A: After falling in love with patient care, I assumed I would go back to Alabama and be a primary care doctor in my hometown. But then I met a new love, falling in love with teaching during my internship. I used to look forward to rounds every day and would prepare quizzes for the medical students and my fellow residents regarding the patients we would be caring for during the day. I was naïve about what a career in medical education would entail, but I was fortunate to have a great mentor in Gene Rich, the division chief of general internal medicine at the time. He encouraged me to do a “fellowship” in medical education, where I would learn crucial faculty skills not only in teaching but scholarship and research. I was fortunate that early in my career I was offered the internal medicine clerkship director position, something I did and loved for 15 years. I was also gratified that I could be the “academic medicine fellowship director” for so many others over the years, helping them achieve their dreams of being leaders in medical education, which they have in an amazing fashion. For example, some of my “fellows” were Chris Feddock, Andrew Hoellein, Kristy Deep, Angela Dearinger, Paula Bailey, and Katie McKinney, among many others, and I am so proud of their achievements and dedication to medical education.

Q: Why did you join the UK College of Medicine?

A: It has always worked out for me to take advantage of opportunities as they happen. Again, I feel incredibly blessed. But my wife and I finished residency at the same time, and we were both from small towns. I embarked on my academic fellowship, and she went into pediatrics where we live to this day, in Winchester, about 25 miles east of Lexington. As an aside, as the pediatrician and therefore leader in a small town, she is Dr. Griffith when we go places in Winchester, and I am merely Mr. Dr. Griffith who does something at UK. But anyway, opportunities blossomed at UK such as being clerkship director, my colleagues have been wonderful, and my love for UK only deepens year to year. I have had several job offers, the most serious about 18 years ago when my alma mater Vanderbilt was recruiting me to be internal medicine residency director there. It was very flattering. My wife and I even went out with real estate agents, but in the end, while I would likely have enjoyed being at Vanderbilt, why leave a place you KNOW you love? Plus my kids were in school, and it didn’t seem good for my family to uproot, so here we stayed. So I am not going anywhere. UK is stuck with me.

Q: During your time here, what impact has the College of Medicine had on your career? On the Commonwealth?

A: I always feel uncomfortable referring to “my career.” Because in the end, it is not about me at all. As I mentioned, I feel blessed to be a physician. I feel blessed to be a teacher. To be both is beyond anything I could ever have imagined, and I do thank the College of Medicine for every opportunity they have bestowed on me to teach and be a doctor here. Now I am proud of the college, and especially I am proud we have really taken on the mantle of being THE university and medical school FOR Kentucky. Establishing regional campuses across the state has been so inspiring for me to be a part of, seeing so many more students whose dreams to be a doctor can now come true, and many can now receive that education close to home. And in the end, this will mean so many more well-trained physicians for our Commonwealth, which was our founding mission of our College of Medicine.

Q: What have been some of the major research projects you have worked on in your tenure?

A: My research involved the outcomes of medical education, both learner outcomes and patient outcomes when cared for by learners. My great research mentor was John Wilson, professor of behavioral science and the wisest person I have even known, and whom I love. He was my essential collaborator on all of my projects. In addition, Steve Haist, who is now the campus dean at Northern Kentucky, taught me much about measurement, standardized patients, and rigor in research. In terms of learner outcomes, I was always asked by students when I was clerkship director to be assigned to the “best” teaching faculty, saying they would learn more from them. So that is an untested hypothesis, do students who work with the “best” clinical faculty actually learn more? We measured “best” in many ways, but often with teaching evaluations. And what we found was controlling for prior academic achievement, those who were randomly assigned to and worked with the “best” clinical teachers actually scored significantly higher on clerkship written and clinical skills exams, and also on USMLE Step 2. Career choice was also influenced. We replicated this work with colleagues here in surgery, and it was replicated nationwide at the University of Michigan and the Uniformed Services University. We also showed resident teaching makes a difference in exam score, a paper that was awarded “best paper” at an AAMC national meeting. So teaching evaluations aren’t just popularity contests. We have shown time and time again that those rated higher do in turn have their students perform better on examinations!

In terms of outcomes of patients when cared for by learners, it was gratifying that some of our work informed the move to limiting resident duty hours. For example, back “in the day,” internal medicine residents would go to their weekly continuity clinic, even if post-call and having been working for 30 hours. We hypothesized that patient satisfaction would be less for patients cared for by such learners, and that indeed was what we showed. So even before work hours restrictions were made, this helped end the barbaric practice of post-call clinic. But more importantly, we documented adverse patient outcomes when residents exceeded a certain threshold of patient volume, informing the notion of “caps” on residency services, both for the betterment of residency education and well-being, but also if you were a patient cared for by a resident with a high workload, your patient outcomes were worse; hence it behooved everyone to place limits on resident work.

Q: What is your favorite activity, place to visit, or thing to do in Kentucky?

A: Although I dearly love Kentucky, this is a hard question to answer. Most of my wife and my family live outside of Kentucky, so we spend most every vacation and free weekends visiting them. But in Kentucky, we very much enjoy going to UK basketball and football games.  Actually, I owe Tubby Smith a debt of gratitude. When he was head basketball coach in the late ‘90s, he lamented that there weren’t more student and faculty seats in Rupp Arena. This resulted in the eRUPPtion Zone for students, but also there was a faculty lottery for season tickets … and we won them!  In terms of places to eat, I think I disappoint my family and children, but when we are going for places for my birthday or Father’s Day, I grew up on country cooking, so it is Cracker Barrel for me! In Winchester, I do want to put a shout out to Blue Isle Restaurant, a Black-owned business in Winchester my wife and I go to pretty much every Friday evening (and the leftovers feed us all weekend, the portions are huge!)