This interview is one in a series of interviews with recipients of the 2020 ACGME Awards. The awardees join an outstanding group of previous honorees whose work and contributions to graduate medical education (GME) represent the best in the field. They will be honored at the upcoming ACGME Annual Educational Conference, taking place February 27-29 in San Diego, California.
Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Awardee Edwin L. Zalneraitis, MD is the pediatric residency program director at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
ACGME: How did you become involved in medicine, and in academic medicine specifically?
Zalneraitis: I have been the program director for over three decades now. I had given little thought to medical education, except for receiving and providing “education” in the clinical setting. It became clear that I needed to educate myself about medical education and the challenges of my position. I found a mentor, Dr. Ken Roberts, and started my journey.
It soon became apparent I was arriving at a time of great change and opportunity. We were moving from process to outcomes, and then to identifying competence. We were moving from an untended and suboptimal learning environment to one that fostered learning. How fortunate I was to be part of that journey! How could I contribute best? I needed to work beyond my program in positions of leadership, and help shape the changes underway. It required extra dedication, but I was up for it, with full support of my wife and family.
ACGME: What does receiving this award mean to you?
Zalneraitis: It is an incredible validation of all we have been trying to do. It’s a tangible indication that what we do matters, and others here in my program and beyond recognize the good work we’ve done and the progress we’ve made.
ACGME: What do you feel is the most important job the program director has?
Zalneraitis: The most important task of the program director is as education and resident and faculty advocate. It is to support the environment and people, so they can make a difference. It is remaining open to hearing and promoting the collective wisdom of those with whom the program director works, as without that, the best ideas never get heard or implemented.
ACGME: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Zalneraitis: To realize that my graduates demonstrated they have the competence to provide extraordinary care for children and their families. As much as I enjoy working with my residents and the faculty, in the end, it’s all about the children and their families. My graduates so far will care for over 2.5 million children.
ACGME: What is the most challenging?
Zalneraitis: The tension between education and non-physician service, the needs for education versus the institution’s need for work. They do not need to be in tension, if we can work together more effectively.
ACGME: What advice do you have to residents or fellows who may be interested in pursuing a career in academic medicine?
Zalneraitis: If you are interested in having a significant part of your career in academic medicine, be prepared to invest in becoming effective as a clinical role model, as a teacher, and in scholarship. Seek opportunities that allow you to grow in all three areas professionally, without sacrificing the things important to you in your personal life.
ACGME: Is there anything else you would like to add I haven’t asked about?
Zalneraitis: Yes! “What would you like to do next?” I want to continue doing what I am doing now, while nurturing and developing my successor(s).