Four alumni of the UMKC School of Medicine — William Cooper, Toi Blakley Harris, Mike Munger and Carl Noback — exemplify the types of leaders the school produces all across the field of medicine.
A heart surgeon and author who has taken his turn serving in war zones.
A child and adolescent psychiatrist and university administrator in the forefront of educating and supporting tomorrow’s physicians, allied health care professionals and medical researchers.
A longtime primary care physician at the reins of the top professional group for family medicine.
And an anesthesiologist turned serial entrepreneur who’s always looking for the next opportunity to help physicians provide optimal care with maximum efficiency.
All four credit the UMKC School of Medicine for sparking their curiosity, imparting broad medical skills and giving them the values and vision they have needed to both serve and lead as their careers unfolded.
The school’s ability to produce leaders was the subject of recent research, in which a survey of alumni identified as holding leadership positions was performed.
Respondents, much like these four doctors, cited the school’s encouraging culture and system as one reason for the school’s having a disproportionate number of graduates in leadership positions.
According to one author of the study, Jennifer Quaintance, Ph.D., UMKC associate professor of biomedical and health informatics and assistant dean for assessment and quality improvement: “Our alumni consistently spoke about their sense of feeling motivated by their participation in the docent teams and by early and frequent patient care experiences. They were held to high and meaningful standards by their teams and also felt supported and encouraged by them.”
Quaintance said many survey respondents gave credit to the School of Medicine’s combination of challenge and support for “helping them to obtain exceptional clinical skills which stood out in residency and led them to leadership positions throughout their careers.”
The courage to lead
Many of the impressive achievements of William Cooper, M.D. ’92, came from overcoming what could have been crushing events.
His mother died when he was 14, which spurred him to become a physician.
He lost five brothers and sisters over the years. Their premature deaths moved him to write a very personal book about heart disease and its prevention.
And he saw the horrors of war in Iraq and came home suffering memory loss. The healing process from that trauma also sparked his writing, and on a later tour of duty to Afghanistan he helped compile a trauma registry to aid other combat surgeons.
“So much of life is about facing tragedy, having to get through things no one should have to see,” Cooper said. “I’ve made it through with the three F’s—faith, family and friends. I’ve had help and great mentors.”
But Cooper also tells people they have to find their sense of self: “That is the essence that will see them through the worst, and let them be so much more than they can even imagine.”
Cooper said the School of Medicine was a proving ground that helped him find his particular passion in medicine, and that strengthened his leadership abilities.
“That fast-paced, six-year program forced you to mature quickly,” Cooper said. “If you had the discipline to do it, you were way ahead of the pack.”
Cooper came from a small Missouri Bootheel town, Hayti, where his father and large family got him through his mother’s death. He followed a cousin, Ozita Cooper, M.D. ’90, to the School of Medicine.
“I learned from so many leaders—including the Sirridges and my docent, Chris Mullen—outstanding people who had a genuine understanding of the importance and the responsibility of taking care of another human being.”
Cooper remembers that the way the school was set up gave students a sense of purpose and belonging.
“Sending you to the clinics early, you have to develop some basic leadership skills,” he said. “I tell people all the time that UMKC has the best program, hands down, in terms of teaching how to approach a patient and have a meaningful conversation.”
But Cooper also realized general medicine was not his calling.
“I wanted to be able to take more direct action, to fix things. When I got to my surgery rotation and got to work with Dr. Beaty Pemberton, who was chief of surgery at Truman Medical Center, I knew I had found my niche.”
After graduation, Cooper landed a general surgery residency at Emory and hoped to eventually do cardiac surgery.
“My very first day, I ran into Dr. Robert Guyton, a pioneering heart surgeon. I had on my new short coat; he didn’t even know whether I could tie my shoes. But he introduced himself as the director of cardiac surgery and said I should come by the OR and see what he does.”
That relationship blossomed into a residency and fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery, and an invitation to stay on staff and teach. When Emory wanted to provide heart surgery for the WellStar Health System, the largest not-for-profit health system in Georgia, Cooper and another surgeon were tabbed. When the other surgeon backed out during a long approval process for the program, Cooper was it.
“Emory took a big chance on me,” he said. “Three years after my fellowship, I was appointed to be a medical director. Big risk, bigger reward.”
Cooper, who joined the Army Reserve at age 17, soon had to take another big risk when he was called up on Christmas Day 2003 to Iraq.
Cooper said he came back “not really haunted by memories, but unable to remember. I thought, ‘I can’t be losing my mind here.’ “
As part of therapy, he started keeping a journal, writing about memories of his family. A stateside deployment came in 2007, and he eventually felt he had gotten past the trauma.
In 2010 he deployed a third time, to Afghanistan, where he and another surgeon realized the Army had no organized data from operating in battle situations like theirs.
“So we got approval from the Pentagon to build a battlefield trauma registry. We kept track of our cases, benchmarking how much time procedures took, in situations where every second counts.”
Cooper’s more personal writing project, “Heart Attack: Truth, Tragedy, Triumph,” was published last year. He wanted the book to be “human, not clinical,” so he included stories of how heart disease had affected families, followed by statistics about its widespread and devastating effects, and advice on making preventive life changes.
Cooper’s working on another book with a preventive-health theme, “Put Me Out of Business.” And he continues to lead at his WellStar cardiology practice, using what he learned at the School of Medicine.
“So many members of the faculty set the foundation, that leaders have to be disciplined, have to be mature, and have a sense of empathy and selflessness about them. Being in that environment and seeing their examples—I can’t say enough about how important that was to me.”
Toi Blakley Harris:
Preparing the next leaders
For Toi Blakley Harris, M.D. ’92, a sense of discovery and a quest for lifelong growth have helped make her a leader in medical education.
At Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Harris is the associate provost for diversity and inclusion, and for student services. Harris also is a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry and continues to lead, develop and implement programs for all students at her health sciences university.
“I get to combine my passions for medical education—to help students succeed and find their own particular passions, and to stay curious and flexible,” Harris said. “With science and medicine expanding and changing at such a rapid pace, we also have to equip students to continue learning, to be open to careers they can’t even imagine.”
When Harris was in medical school, she never expected to be a dean, or in a provost’s office. She credits her faith, family, friends and educational roots: “UMKC really provided the framework and the spirit to encourage us to become leaders. We were given opportunities to lead, from the junior-senior partner teams that we had on our docent units to being with the same group of people over time. You really got a sense of leadership.” An extended network of friends and advisers that started at UMKC also was instrumental, she said.
It wasn’t so much what was taught, she explained, but how it was modeled. “I remember my great docents and mentors, including James Walden and Alexander Tal, and I’m still in touch with one, Gladys Zollar-Jones. She was and continues to be a strong student advocate.”
“I remember my great docents and mentors. … I was always encouraged to pursue my passion.” – Toi Blakley Harris
Today, it’s hard to find a better description of Harris’ academic leadership than to say she, too, is “a strong student advocate.” And, she said, it’s easy to see her UMKC roots in what she is doing now.
Since 2011, Harris has overseen ever-expanding duties at Baylor in student services and diversity, first as an assistant dean, then as interim associate dean for the medical school and then as the inaugural associate provost starting in January 2015.
The provost’s office, Harris said, was established to bring together several functions across all four of Baylor’s educational programs: the medical school, allied health sciences, biomedical sciences and the country’s only school of tropical medicine.
When she works on outreach and recruitment, Harris remembers what helped draw her to UMKC.
“I was the first physician in my family, but my maternal aunt was a nurse and an adjunct faculty member” at the University of Kansas School of Nursing. “That was particularly impressive, given the time, for an African-American woman in the 1950s.”
But UMKC, rather than KU, ended up attracting Harris.
“We moved to Missouri from Wyandotte County when I was in the 5th grade, and I participated in both Medical Explorers and UMKC’s Summer Scholars program,” which continues today as an outreach to students interested in science and medicine.
At Baylor, Harris now works on similar pipeline programs for K-through-12 students, with such names as Saturday Morning Science and Doctor’s Day Outreach.
She said diversity and inclusion weren’t bywords when she was a student, but they were built into the school’s embrace of all students and their many interests.
“I was always encouraged to pursue my passion. A group of us were interested in the Student National Medical Association, which supports medical students of African descent, and Dr. Reaner Shannon was very supportive of us. We had a banquet and raised money and established a scholarship fund for African-American students.”
She witnessed first-hand the struggles of completing a rigorous academic program and the need to have supports in place to optimize student success.
Those experiences and activities, Harris said, led her to student affairs and diversity work.
She said UMKC’s six-year program encouraged the sort of exploration, flexibility and commitment to continued learning that she thinks is even more important today.
Many specialties were intriguing for Harris during medical school, including pathology and obstetrics and gynecology, but psychiatry grabbed her attention on one of her last core rotations. “I was really drawn to seeing what made each individual different—not just what was involved in their disorder, but also what made them resilient and could be a key to treatment.”
That interest, combined with the B.A./M.D. program’s flexibility, allowed Harris the opportunity to take an elective in child and adolescent psychiatry at Baylor.
Besides establishing practices affiliated with Texas Children’s Hospital and the Harris Health System, Harris participated in research and taught before moving into administration. She recently became a full professor.
“Both environments, UMKC and Baylor, have afforded me the mentorship and opportunity to grow and be challenged throughout my leadership journey.”
Leading the medical family
Family physicians face many challenges, from coordinating care for thousands of patients to keeping up with technology and avoiding burnout. Rather than being daunted, Mike Munger, M.D. ’83, has become a champion for his field and a leader in helping other doctors.
All physicians are leaders in some way, he says, but those in primary care are increasingly being asked to step to the forefront.
“We have to lead in promoting preventive care and continuity of care, improving population health, integrating technology and combining efficiency and innovation,” said Munger, the president-elect of the nearly 125,000-member American Academy of Family Physicians.
“I believe family medicine to be the most vital specialty to the overall health of our country.”
Munger has been in family medicine and involved in the family physicians’ organization for 30 years. He traces his love for the field and his commitment to supporting other physicians to his time at the School of Medicine and his residency.
“My docent was Dr. Marjorie Sirridge, who had patients she had cared for over a lifetime in her practice,” Munger said. “And I had a lot of interactions with Dr. Jack Mulligan, who also was a docent at the time. He was a general internist and really talked a lot about the importance of relationships with patients.”
Munger’s residency program, at what then was Baptist Medical Center, was affiliated with UMKC and run by Jack Stelmach, M.D., a past AAFP president.
“Dr. Stelmach was absolutely committed to furthering general practice medicine and thought we all should be, too,” Munger said. “I really took it to heart, through organized family medicine.”
Munger worked his way up in the Missouri family physicians’ organization from 1987 to 2001, and did it again in the Kansas organization after he moved his practice “four miles west, across that pesky state line.”
Munger joined the AAFP’s national board of directors in 2013. He was chosen president-elect last September.
In his new role, Munger keeps in touch with many AAFP chapters and represents the academy in dealings with other medical associations. This coming September, he will become president and “the official voice of the academy.” That includes giving testimony in the House and Senate, talking with the media about policy and providing official responses to other organizations.
The academy is pushing on several fronts to help family physicians, Munger said.
“We are advocating for payment reform, for changes in graduate medical education to increase our workforce, and to decrease the administrative complexity that we face and the forms we drown in daily.”
Family physicians “have always been the ones to provide continuing care, driven by relationships,” Munger said. “The components we’re adding are coordinating care across the entire medical neighborhood. We’re going to make sure we’re truly managing a population of patients.”
But do health care compensation codes, which greatly affect physicians’ ultimate income, adequately reflect the range of diagnostic, managerial, educational and relationship-building skills that go into good family medicine?
“Exactly,” Munger said. “That’s why payment reform is one of our top priorities.”
Family medicine also tops the list of specialties for physician burnout, he said. So the academy is working to give its members tools and resources to increase physician well-being and resilience.
“The relationships and bonds you develop in family medicine are amazing,” Munger said. “It’s something to recognize how much you impact not just patients, but families.”
However, if family medicine is the mainstream of medicine, Munger’s education was anything but mainstream—and he’s grateful for that.
When he started at UMKC in 1977, it was a fairly new school and the combined six-year B.A./M.D. program was unique. Munger said he had always felt that his education, because it was not mainstream, provided a good foundation and different viewpoint.
“My education, which integrated patient care and classic academic learning, was ahead of its time, and I can’t imagine why all medical education isn’t moving in that direction.”
At various events around the country, Munger talks about the benefits of UMKC’s approach.
At a recent workshop on physician burnout, some in attendance told Munger it could start as early as medical school.
“One resident traced it to her first two years, which were mainly spent in the classroom on basic science, without any practical application to patient care,” Munger said. “She noted studies showing greater resilience if you have clinical training integrated throughout your education.”
That made Munger smile.
“Right from the start, UMKC was looking to the future,” he said.
On innovation’s leading edge
The career path of Carl Noback, M.D. ’77, has led him from anesthesiology to entrepreneurship. Through it all, he sees a common thread of providing health care in the most efficient ways possible. And he traces it back to his days at UMKC—and even before.
“I was exposed to the development of the academic plan for the School of Medicine from my freshman year in high school,” said Noback, whose father is the school’s founding dean, Richardson Noback.
“I heard my father and colleagues like Homer Wadsworth, Nate Stark, Al Mauro and Vernon Wilson discussing a system focused from the start on the direct learning of skills from direct involvement with patients,” he said. “So I knew UMKC’s program was going to be more effective than sitting in the classroom for two years before getting to see patients.”
Noback today describes his main business as helping medical practices operate more efficiently. “All the principles I’m living right now—efficiency and timely, cost-effective delivery of the best patient care—are a direct result of the UMKC academic plan.”
Noback’s current entrepreneurial streak started almost a decade ago and turned into IPS, or Innovative Practice Strategies, which provides anesthesia services in outpatient settings.
“I was working alongside a national anesthesia staffing company, and some of us were trying to figure out how to efficiently provide anesthesia in non-traditional settings—in-office surgeries, outpatient settings,” Noback said. “We went from nothing but an idea to providing anesthesia for more than 200,000 patients a year, all in outpatient settings.”
As IPS diversified, Noback met the venture capitalists of Triton Value Partners, for whom he remains a consultant.
“They had a lot of experience developing companies from scratch, getting them capitalized, and applying good business principles, and I had some health care ideas. So, independent of Triton and IPS, we founded Allyne Health.”
Allyne, Noback said, “applies Fortune 500 business principles to health care practices. If an independent practice wants to stay independent, we can help make that happen. We can help with efficiency and cost control, with finding added services to increase revenues, and with succession planning. If a practice wishes to prep for a sale, Allyne will increase the value of the practice for the seller.”
Even before Noback became a leader in practice expansion and management with IPS and Allyne, his career was anything but ordinary.
Noback attended Yale University before UMKC and did his residency at the Mayo Clinic.
He had academic appointments at Mayo and Emory University and went into private anesthesiology practice for several years, with a subspecialty in pain management. In 1999 he tried his hand at business, opening a forensic medicine firm with an engineer.
“We did accident and injury reconstruction, from the kinematics of the event to research and testimony on what happened to the injured person—’CSI’ kind of stuff,” he said.
“Then I was recruited to Harbor-UCLA to run the residency and pain management programs at their hospital.”
While at Harbor-UCLA, he also helped out at a clinic in Beverly Hills, work that proved to be an audition of sorts and led to a 2002-2006 stint as one of the four original doctors for the ABC plastic-surgery television show, “Extreme Makeover.”
Today, Noback remains a managing member at IPS, which is based in Florida, and chief medical officer at Allyne, based in Atlanta.
“It’s all about efficiency, and being open to new ideas, new possibilities, and for providing the best care in the best way possible,” Noback said. “We’re the business doctor for the doctor’s business.”
Noback said the School of Medicine, besides having a curriculum and teaching approach that encouraged innovative thinking, exposed him to “so many classmates who brought different life experiences to medical school.”
He said it was “a monstrous advantage of UMKC, to interact with these very disparate peers and pick their brains. Combine that with the academic plan that integrated the humanities and the immediate experience with patients, and it’s no wonder UMKC has produced so many leaders.” •