Career

SHM CEO Eric Howell likes to fix things

Engineering provided a foundation for hospital medicine


 

Editor’s note: This profile is part of SHM’s celebration of National Hospitalist Day on March 4. National Hospitalist Day occurs the first Thursday in March annually, and celebrates the fastest growing specialty in modern medicine and hospitalists’ enduring contributions to the evolving health care landscape.

For Eric E. Howell, MD, MHM, CEO since July 2020 for the Society of Hospital Medicine, an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a lifelong proclivity for figuring out puzzles, solving problems, and taking things apart to see how they fit back together were building blocks for an exemplary career as a hospitalist, group administrator, and medical educator.

Dr. Eric E. Howell, chief, division of hospital medicine, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore

Dr. Eric E. Howell

When he was growing up in historic Annapolis, Md., near the shores of Chesapeake Bay, things to put back together included remote control airplanes, small boat engines, and cars. As a hospitalist, his interest in solving problems and facility with numbers and systems led him to become an expert on quality improvement, transitions of care, and conflict management.

hospital medicine, Eric Howell, boating Courtesy Dr. Eric Howell

Dr. Eric Howell was raised on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and continues to spend time on the water.

“One thing about engineering, you’re always having to fix things. It helps you learn to assess complex situations,” said Dr. Howell, who is 52. “It was helpful for me to bring an engineering approach into the hospital. One of my earliest successes was reengineering admissions processes to dramatically reduce the amount of time patients were spending in the emergency room before they could be admitted to the hospital.”

But his career path in hospital medicine came about by a lucky chance, following residency and a year as chief resident at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. “One of my duties as chief resident was taking care of hospitalized patients. I didn’t know it but I was becoming a de facto hospitalist,” he recalled.

At the time, he thought he might end up choosing to specialize in something like cardiology or critical care medicine, but in 2000 he was invited to join the new “non-house-staff” medical service at Bayview. Also called a general medicine inpatient service, it eventually evolved into the hospitalist service.

His residency program director, Roy Ziegelstein, MD, a cardiologist and now the vice dean of education at Johns Hopkins, created a job for him.

Dr. Roy Ziegelstein, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore

Dr. Roy Ziegelstein

“I was one of the first four doctors hired. I thought I’d just do it for a year, but I loved inpatient work, so I stayed,” Dr. Howell said. “Roy mentored me for the next 20 years and helped me to become an above average hospitalist.”

Early on, Dr. Howell’s department chair, David Hellman, MD, who had worked at the University of California–San Francisco with hospital medicine pioneer Robert Wachter, MD, MHM, sent Dr. Howell to San Francisco to be mentored by Dr. Wachter, since there were few hospital mentors on the East Coast at that time.

“What I took away from that experience was how important it was to professionalize hospital medicine – in order to develop specialized expertise,” Dr. Howell recalled. “Dr. Wachter taught me that hospitalists need to have a professional focus. Quality improvement, systems-based improvement, and value all became part of that,” he said.

“Many people thought to be a hospitalist all you had to know was basic medicine. But it turns out medicine in the hospital is just as specialized as any other specialty. The hospital itself requires specialized knowledge that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.” Because of complicated disease states and clinical systems, hospitalists have to be better at navigating the software of today’s hospital.

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