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Never take a patient’s trust for granted, alumnus tells graduates

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring

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When he stepped up to the microphone, Howard K. Koh, M.D. ’77, M.P.H., the School of Medicine’s 2015 Commencement speaker, paused for a moment. Then, with an enthusiasm that matched the crackling excitement of the day, Koh trumpeted, “Congratulations, Yale Medical School Class of 2015!”

Speaking in a soaring voice, a vestige of Yale undergraduate days as Glee Club president, Koh alternated serious messages with pithy one-liners. Koh, who teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, began by quoting Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Koh said he found his life’s purpose while he was a practicing physician. Infuriated by societal forces like the lack of insurance, education, or a livable income, that thwarted access to good health care, Koh pursued a career in public health so he could help tackle these broader issues related to health care. He earned his M.P.H. from the Boston University School of Public Health in 1995. Two years later, he became public health commissioner of Massachusetts. In 2009, after being nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Koh became assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a position he held until 2014. Looking out into the audience, Koh gave a nod to his accomplished brother Harold H. Koh, J.D., Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale, and thanked his family for their support. “Be kind to your family members. They’re the people who really know you, but love you anyway,” Koh quipped.

Turning serious, Koh told graduates never to take a patient’s trust for granted. “You need to show the ultimate kindness and respect for your patients,” he said, reminding the young physicians that one day soon they too will be patients. This new title of “doctor” will change forever the way family, friends, and even strangers, view you, Koh said. “Distant family members you never knew you had will soon be calling you asking for professional advice. On the airplane, traveling companions will unabashedly share their symptoms and expect brilliant insights about prognosis and cure,” Koh said, to a laughing audience. “Utter strangers will clamor to show you all kinds of lesions on all kinds of body parts.” These were all examples of the trust that the public has for doctors, he said.

After the laughter died down, Koh told the graduates that the nation needs their skills now more than ever as the country grapples with fundamental questions on the best way to approach health care. There are countless ways to serve, Koh said, but graduates must find and live their unique calling. Some young physicians may already have plans to pursue a particular path. “But remember, life is what happens to you when you are making other plans,” Koh said. Besides, the path may not direct or straight, he added. Koh concluded his speech with advice—and a quote attributed to comedian Michael Ian Black: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape,” Koh said.

Earlier in the ceremony, Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, presented awards for faculty and house staff. The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prizes for outstanding teaching went to Ruslan Medzhitov, Ph.D., the David W. Wallace professor of immunobiology, for basic science teaching, and to Rachel Liu, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine for clinical science teaching. The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, which recognizes a faculty member who shows compassion and sensitivity in patient interactions, went to Benjamin Doolittle, M.D., M.Div., associate professor of medicine and pediatrics. The Leah M. Lowenstein Award for excellence in the promotion of humane and egalitarian medical education went to Auguste H. Fortin VI, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of general medicine, and to Karen Santucci, M.D., professor and section chief of pediatric emergency medicine. The Francis Gilman Blake Award, given to faculty designated by the graduating class as the most outstanding teacher of medical sciences, was awarded to Geoffrey Connors, M.D., assistant professor of pulmonary medicine and associate program director of the internal medicine traditional residency program. Also chosen by the graduating class, The Betsy Winters House Staff Award, presented to a house staff member who has significantly contributed to educating medical students, went to Ajul Shah, M.D., who is a plastic surgery resident. The Alvan R. Feinstein Award recognizes a faculty member chosen by a committee of chairs of clinical departments, associate chairs, and students as the outstanding teacher of clinical skills. This year’s award went to Leigh Evans, M.D., who is assistant professor of emergency medicine and director of health care simulation and resident research. The Dean’s Award for unique individuals whose contribution to the education of our students is considered extraordinary was awarded to Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor emeritus and professor of medicine (hematology).