March 27, 2019

Parting Words: An Interview with the ACGME's Debra L. Dooley

Debra L. Dooley (Deb, or Debbie, as she’s known) came to the ACGME 22 years ago, initially in an administrative role with the Review Committee for Internal Medicine. She retires this month after 10.5 years as the Director of Educational Activities, where she leads the team responsible for producing the ACGME’s educational programming, and most notably the Annual Educational Conference. During her tenure, the conference evolved and grew. This year’s event broke records for attendance, as well as number of sessions, posters, and speakers. The ACGME surprised Ms. Dooley at the annual Coordinator Forum during the pre-conferences held Thursday, March 7, by announcing the renaming of the ACGME’s Program Coordinator Excellence Award in her honor.

We spent some time with Ms. Dooley in her last weeks at the ACGME, discussing her career, her mentors, her legacy, and her deep gratitude for the recognition provided by the renaming of the Debra L. Dooley Program Coordinator Excellence Award.

ACGME: Tell us about how you came into your career in GME…

DD: I began in a temporary job at a brand new medical school, just to earn a little extra money for Christmas. About a month after I started, I was approached by the Chair of the Internal Medicine Department, Dr. Kelly Smith, who told me he wanted me to be the program coordinator. I told him I had no idea what that meant, and he said, simply, “I’ll teach you.” I spent the next 17 years as a program coordinator at East Tennessee State University, and he was the first professional mentor I had. When he resigned as Chairman, Dr. Steven Berk picked up where he left off and helped me develop professionally. I also became very involved in developing the program coordinator role nationally, and I only left that position because my husband’s job moved us to Chicago.

ACGME: Is that how you ended up at the ACGME?

DD: Yes. Well, the part of my job I really enjoyed most was the accreditation part of it, which I realize is a strange thing to say, especially since I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I started! But I was in the program coordinator role just about a month when the program director handed me the ACGME requirements and told me I’d better read those because we had a site visit in another month! I took that seriously and really dedicated myself to learning and understanding the requirements. When we moved, I decided to contact [the ACGME’s] Karen Lambert, who I’d met through APDIM [the Association for Program Directors in Internal Medicine], and ask if there were any positions available. At the time there was a role available supporting the Review Committee for Surgery, but a week before my interview, the internal medicine administrator quit, so I felt it was meant to be. I spent 10 years with the Review Committee for Internal Medicine, and with my next two mentors, Karen [Lambert] and [former Review Committee Executive Director] Bill Rodak. During those years the committee really focused not just on setting and meeting standards, but cultivating innovation, and being there supporting them, I learned and grew a lot.

ACGME: So how did you transition into the Department of Education?

DD: When [former ACGME Executive Director] Dr. [David C.] Leach retired, and Dr. [Thomas J.] Nasca became the CEO, one of his first initiatives was to establish an education department. When [Chief of Staff and Chief Education and Organizational Development Officer] Tim Brigham came on board in 2008, I was appointed to the position. Dr. Brigham provided me with the support and nurturing to develop in this position.

ACGME: Tell us about the Coordinator Forum – what was your vision and how did that come to be what it is today?

DD: Dr. Nasca and Dr. Brigham really encouraged and supported my vision – I have to say I’m so grateful for their trust. My roots as a coordinator gave me the confidence and desire to develop something targeting coordinator education, and the support of Drs. Nasca and Brigham made it possible. Together, we took the ACGME conference to a whole new level. As I grew in my position, I saw a need for coordinator education. I knew from my own experience how much of the community didn’t really understand who the ACGME was and what it does. Internal medicine did a workshop for coordinators in the specialty, so I suggested we offer them through the ACGME to coordinators from all specialties. So we did that, but I saw there was an opportunity for more, and I worked on this idea I had been thinking about for a forum. We piloted the Forum in 2011. There were 400 participants and just over 20 breakouts. This year we had about 1,300 participants and 34 workshops, from 117 submissions! It’s really incredible to see your vision come to life. It’s also been wonderful to see how it has helped to unite the coordinator community, and to grow the coordinator role. We now have submissions from coordinators not just for the Forum, but for posters and for sessions at the full conference, too.

ACGME: The Forum is only one mark you’re leaving on the conference. Can you talk about the growth of the conference overall?

DD: It’s very hard to put into words how I feel about it. Being part of this ACGME family, and growing personally and professionally in my 22 years here—and 39 in GME!—I was really supported and inspired to pursue and develop education. So to build the conference from what was a one-room accreditation workshop into the event it is now is really rewarding. I’ve worked hard, we all have, and it shows. One of the things [Tim Brigham and I] added early on was the solicitation of sessions from the GME community. It elevated the quality of the educational content, and I really am so proud of where the conference is today.

ACGME: So as you prepare for your upcoming retirement and reflect back, what would you say is your greatest achievement in your career?

DD: It’s the Coordinator Forum and the relationship I was able to build with the coordinator community nationally. I’m incredibly proud of that.

ACGME: What will you miss the most?

DD: I’ll really miss the ACGME family. I’ve been here 22 years, and I’ve been here through so many ups and downs in both my personal and professional life, and there is so much support among the staff. These are my friends, and they’ve become like family. I’m really going to miss that.

ACGME: What are you most looking forward to?

DD: Spending time with my husband, and with my son and his family – the grandchildren. You know, I worked for 39 years straight, and so did my husband. I am really lucky that my husband always viewed our work as equally valuable, so I was fully supported to do what I wanted and what was meaningful. I’m looking forward to being able to spend time together away from that working life.

ACGME: Do you have any advice for your ACGME colleagues?

DD: Don’t ever stop trying to improve, because everything can always be a little better. I tried to follow that guideline in my job, and I have a fabulous team here I know will do the same, and will do amazing things.

ACGME: How about some advice for your coordinator community?

DD: Stay focused, and keep pushing for this position to get the recognition it deserves!

ACGME: Can you tell us how you felt when the renaming of the Program Coordinator Excellence Award in your honor was announced?

DD: Flabbergasted! I had no idea they would ever do something like that at all. And I am deeply honored and humbled. It was the most amazing feeling. Indescribable.

ACGME: What does it mean to you?

DD: There’s a part of me that’s not leaving the ACGME, and that touches me deeply. To work hard for something and get recognition for it is one thing. But to have something like this, where my name will be attached to it for the future, there really are no words. It’s truly amazing.

ACGME: What are your hopes for this award moving forward?

DD: I hope program directors will be encouraged to recognize their coordinators for the work they do, and for all they contribute that makes their programs successful. And I hope that coordinators will continue rising to great levels and be inspired to keep making a difference.

ACGME: Any other parting message?

DD: Yes, I really want to thank the ACGME staff I’ve worked with over the years. I really want to give special thanks to the staff who have worked on the conference specifically. It really does take a village, and the conference absolutely wouldn’t be what it is without the staff.