New job opportunities
Dr. Howell describes his career path as a new job focus opening up every 5 years or so, redefining what he does and trying something new and exciting with better pay. His first was a focus on clinical hospital medicine and learning how to be a better doctor. Then in 2005 he began work as a teacher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. There he mastered the teaching of medical trainees, winning awards as an instructor, including SHM’s award for excellence in teaching.
In 2010 he again changed his focus to program building, leading the expansion of the hospitalist service for Bayview and three other hospitals in the Johns Hopkins system. Dr. Howell helped grow the service to nearly 200 clinicians while becoming skilled at operational and program development.
His fourth job incarnation, starting in 2015, was the obsessive pursuit of quality improvement, marshaling data to measure and improve clinical and other outcomes on the quality dashboard – mortality, length of stay, readmissions, rates of adverse events – and putting quality improvement strategies in place.
“Our mortality rates at Bayview were well below national standards. We came up with an amazing program. A lot of hospital medicine programs pursue improvement, but we really measured it. We benchmarked ourselves against other programs at Hopkins,” he said. “I set up a dedicated conference room, as many QI programs do. We called it True North, and each wall had a different QI focus, with updates on the reported metrics. Every other week we met there to talk about the metrics,” he said.
That experience led to working with SHM, which he had joined as a member early in his career and for which he had previously served as president. He became SHM’s quality improvement liaison and a co-principal investigator on Project BOOST (Better Outcomes for Older adults through Safe Transitions), SHM’s pioneering, national mentored-implementation model aimed at improving transitions of care from participating hospitals to reduce readmissions. “BOOST really established SHM’s reputation as a quality improvement-oriented organization. It was a stake in the ground for quality and led to SHM receiving the Joint Commission’s 2011 John M. Eisenberg Award for Innovation in Patient Safety and Quality,” he said.
Dr. Howell’s fifth career phase, medical society management, emerged when he was recruited to apply for the SHM chief executive position – held since its inception by retiring CEO Larry Wellikson, MD, MHM. Dr. Howell started work at SHM in the midst of the pandemic, spending much of his time working from home – especially when Philadelphia implemented stricter COVID-19 restrictions. Once pandemic restrictions are loosened, he expects to do a lot of traveling. But for now, the external-facing part of his job is mainly on Zoom.
Making the world a better place
Dr. Howell said he has held fast to three mottos in life, which have guided his career path as well as his personal life: (1) to make the world a better place; (2) to be ethical and transparent; and (3) to invest in people. His wife of 19 years, Heather Howell, an Annapolis realtor, says making the world a better place is what they taught their children, Mason, 18, who starts college at Rice University in fall 2021 with an interest in premed, and Anna, 16, a competitive sailor. “We always had a poster hanging in our house extolling that message,” Ms. Howell said.
Dr. Howell grew up in a nautical family, with many of his relatives working in the maritime business. His kids grew up on the water, learning to pilot a powerboat before driving a car, as he did. “We boat all the time on the bay” in his lobster boat, which he often works on to keep it seaworthy, Ms. Howell said.
“There’s nothing like taking care of hospitalized patients to make you feel you’re making the world a better place,” Dr. Howell observed. “Very often you can make a huge difference for the patients you do care for, and that is incredibly rewarding.” Although the demands of his SHM leadership position required relinquishing most of his responsibilities at Johns Hopkins, he continues to see patients and teach residents there 2-4 weeks a year on a teaching service.
“Why do I still see patients? I find it so rewarding. And I get to teach, which I love,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t think you truly need to see patients to be head of a professional medical society like SHM. Maybe someday I’ll give that up. But only if it’s necessary to make the society more successful.”
Half of Dr. Howell’s Society work now is planned and half is “putting out fires” – while learning members’ needs in real time. “Right now, we’re worried about burnout and PTSD, because frankly it’s stressful to take care of COVID patients. It’s scary for a lot of clinicians. I’m working with our members to make sure they have what they need to be clinically prepared, including resources to be more resilient professionally.”
Every step of his career, Dr. Howell said, has seemed like the best job he ever had. “Making the world a better place is still important to me. I tell SHM members that it’s important to know they are making a difference. What they’re doing is really important, especially with COVID, and it needs to be sustainable,” he said.
“SHM has such a powerful mission – it’s about making patient care better, and making hospitalists better clinicians. I know the Society is having a powerful impact, and that’s good enough for me. I’m into teams. Hospital medicine is a team sport, but so is SHM, interacting with its members, staff, and board.”
Initiating another new program
One of Dr. Howell’s last major projects for Hopkins was to launch and be chief medical officer for the Joint Commission–accredited Baltimore Civic Center Field Hospital for COVID-19 patients, opened in March 2020.
With a surge capacity of 250 beds, and a negative pressure ward set up in the center’s exhibit hall, it is jointly operated by the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The field hospital’s mission has since expanded to include viral tests, infusions of monoclonal antibodies, and COVID-19 vaccinations.
Planning for a smooth transition, Dr. Howell brought Melinda E. Kantsiper, MD, director of clinical operations, Division of Hospital Medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview, on board as associate medical officer, to eventually replace him as CMO after a few months working alongside him. “Eric brings that logical engineering eye to problem solving,” Dr. Kantsiper said.
“We wanted to build a very safe, high-quality hospital setting but had to do it very quickly. Watching him once again do what he does best, initiating a new program, building things carefully and thoughtfully, without being overly cautious, I could see his years of experience and good judgment about how hospitals run. He’s very logical but very caring. He’s also good at spotting young leaders and their talents.”
Some people have a knack for solving problems, added Dr. Ziegelstein, Dr. Howell’s mentor from his early days at Bayview. “Eric is different. He’s someone who’s able to identify gaps, problem areas, and vulnerabilities within an organization and then come up with a potential menu of solutions, think about which would be most likely to succeed, implement it, and assess the outcome. That’s the difference between a skilled manager and a true leader, and I’d say Eric had that ability while still in training,” Dr. Ziegelstein said.
“Eric understood early on not only what the field of hospital medicine could offer, he also understood how to catalyze change, without taking on too much change at one time,” Dr. Ziegelstein said. “He understood people’s sensibilities and concerns about this new service, and he catalyzed its growth through incremental change.”