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Dr. Ronald Vender, Gastroenterologist and Yale Medicine’s First Chief Medical Officer, Retiring

May 01, 2024

Anyone who has worked with Ronald Vender, MD, singles him out for his outstanding ability to connect with people and invest in their wellbeing. Vender, MD ’77, professor of medicine (digestive diseases), who will retire in June, served as the chief medical officer of Yale Medicine and associate dean for clinical affairs at Yale School of Medicine for over 12 years.

“Ron cared about the organization, cared about the school, he cared about his department, he cared about physicians and all clinicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, physical therapists, and so on,” said Alan Friedman, MD, professor of pediatrics (cardiology), and chief medical officer, Yale New Haven Hospital. “But what Ron really cared about, and what Ron continues to care about in his life are people and the relationships that he has with people. That is a salient and palpable part of who Ron is as a human, and I think it’s a large part of why Ron is so well-respected and beloved by everyone.”

Vender grew up in Skokie, Illinois, and received his BA from Harvard University in 1973. He completed his medical degree at Yale School of Medicine and did his residency training and a gastroenterology fellowship at Yale New Haven Hospital. Prior to joining the Yale School of Medicine faculty, Vender was chief of gastroenterology at Yale New Haven Hospital Saint Raphael Campus (née Hospital of St. Raphael) for 17 years, associate director of the Yale GI Fellowship Program, and co-founder and managing partner of the Gastroenterology Center of Connecticut.

He has received numerous awards for teaching and clinical care, including the William Carey Award from the American College of Gastroenterology, the Distinguished Clinician Award from the American Gastroenterological Association, and the DeLuca Award from Yale School of Medicine. He’s also served as president of the American College of Gastroenterology, and as the chair of the organization’s National Affairs Committee. In 2018, he was awarded the designation of Master by the American College of Gastroenterology.

Vender’s decision to move on from practicing medicine was an existential one, spurred by a health crisis. In 2006, he was diagnosed with sarcoma in his thigh muscle and was told he had a 40% to 50% chance of dying of the disease.

“It was during my physical and emotional recovery from that [diagnosis] that I had time to read and to truly consider how I wanted to spend the rest of my life,” Vender said. “What I realized is I was happy practicing medicine, but I wasn't spending time on the things that really mattered to me the most as a doctor. What I was most passionate about was patient-centered care and physician health and wellbeing, and how to help doctors change the way we treat patients, where we put them in the center of our universe and create systems and do better for them.”

As Vender started looking for opportunities, Peter Herbert, MD, then vice president of medical affairs at Yale New Haven Hospital, asked him if he was interested in applying for the chief medical officer position at Yale Medicine (née Yale Medical Group.)

Vender credits David J. Leffell, MDCM, who was then the deputy dean of Clinical Affairs and president of Yale Medicine, “a visionary leader,” with having the confidence and courage to hire someone who did not have a traditional academic pedigree.

“There wasn't a sense of Yale Medicine being a truly integrated academic multispecialty group, and there wasn’t a common culture across the departments,” said Vender. “Dr. Leffell’s goal was to elevate the clinical practice to the same level of excellence as the research and education missions.”

During Vender’s leadership tenure, he addressed big-picture issues and day-to-day practical matters, which led to many significant changes. Chief among them was the enormous growth of the clinical practice. The number of clinically active faculty doubled, and the clinical revenues quadrupled. Vender is quick to point out that this was a team effort that required the leadership of Leffell (and later Paul Taheri, MD, MBA), the commitment of our remarkably talented department chairs, and the close partnership with YNHH leadership.

Vender also focused attention on quality and safety, leading to the recruitment of a chief quality officer and a chief safety officer; he co-chaired the YNHHS Joint Leadership Council of physician and nursing leadership as well as the MCIC Patient Safety Committee; and served as medical director of Yale’s Continuing Medical Education program.

“Ron is a person who has the patient experience at the forefront but does not forget the provider experience, the faculty experience,” said Aldo Peixoto, MD, professor of medicine (nephrology); clinical chief, Section of Nephrology; and vice chair for quality & safety, Department of Internal Medicine.

“This is something that has always permeated the way he acted, and I really valued that for the 10 years we worked together.”

With Kristine Olson, MD, MS, chief wellness officer at Yale New Haven Hospital, Vender created a survey on physician burnout, a wellbeing advisory board, a resilience training program, and a workshop for new faculty members. They also advocated for the role of a chief wellness officer and advocated for time-saving innovations such as voice recognition software and virtual scribes to make the use of the electronic medical record system less cumbersome.

“We showed that we had burnout consistent with the national levels and were able to demonstrate convincingly that this is a healthcare industry system issue and not an individual issue,” Olson said. “We had a practical approach to this that was evidence-based. That helped put people at ease, knowing we could tackle this. We talk about transformational servant-style leadership. We talk about people being seen, heard, valued, supported, and developed, and Ron was just a living example of how you can operationalize that.”

Among Vender’s practical successes, achieved in partnership with YNHH and Tucker Leary, was Y Access, a service that allows someone to call to transfer a patient to Yale Medicine and connected with one of the attending physicians within three minutes to coordinate the details of the transfer. “It was revolutionary,” Vender said. “Nobody believed our doctors would respond so promptly. It has worked incredibly well.”

Peixoto says he was initially skeptical about a "tap-and-go” system Vender sponsored, in collaboration with Allen Hsiao, MD, FAAP, FAMIA, and the Epic team, that allows physicians to enter a patient’s room by tapping their badges on a sensor rather than having to log in to a system and enter their credentials each time. “When it was first launched, I thought it would be worthless, and now whenever I go to a clinic that doesn't have it, I go crazy,” Peixoto said.

“That’s an example of how Ron was invested in the provider experience. It improved efficiency and decreased the time that you had to spend typing in your credentials and waiting to log on. It saves you maybe 15 to 30 seconds per patient, but if you're seeing 20 or 30 patients a day, which adds up.”

When a sensitive, high-profile professionalism case surfaced involving a faculty member, Peixoto was the doctor supervisor, while Vender approached it from a risk management perspective for Yale Medicine. “Ron was so even-handed and so calm, always reassuring and able to mediate the conversations with our attorneys and guide those conversations. I gained respect for his humanity and his collegiality. I had never had to deal with anything of that type and he helped me navigate that. He's a very gifted communicator and can see the big picture in these difficult situations quite well.”

Vender also chaired the Yale Medicine Practice Standards committee to help create a culture of clinical excellence and professionalism. The key tenets of these standards were incorporated into the Professionalism Charter, a one-page document that is now signed by every new faculty member who joins Yale Medicine and is signed again each time they apply for recredentialing. “That one-page outlines how we fulfill our vision, mission, and values. It is a clear statement of how we put our patients’ needs first, and commit ourselves to an environment of safety, respect, and caring,” Vender said.

Deborah Broadwater, who worked with Vender for 10 years as a project manager in the Office of Clinical Affairs in the School of Medicine Dean's office, said “he treats you like a family member. “Anyone who’s been in his office just wants to stay longer. He takes great pride in mentoring. When talking to someone who may be having difficulties in their career, he tries to get to the heart of what's going on with them personally and professionally and how they can develop a plan to get them back on track and to grow. It's about how he can help with your career to make you happier and more fulfilled.”

To recognize outstanding faculty, Vender championed the David and Cindy Leffell Award, which recognizes one physician each year for their excellence and extraordinary contributions to clinical care, and the Distinguished Career Award, recognizing excellence over the course of at least 20 years at Yale.

Joshua Copel, MD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and of pediatrics; vice chair, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences; assistant dean of clinical affairs, Yale Medicine; concurs. “Hands down, Ron was the best boss anyone could ever want to have,” Copel said. “He listens and he guides, and he helps people do things in a better way. He didn't micromanage. He let me figure things out for myself but offered guidance where it was needed.”

Vender said he feels “extremely honored” to have become a professor at Yale, and to have worked with so many dedicated and talented people. He looks forward to maintaining connections with his friends and colleagues at the university. He is about to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary and has a close relationship with his son and grandchildren. “I think I'm prouder of that than the professional accomplishments,” he said.

During his retirement, Vender says he plans to focus on his own health and well-being and on doing the things he enjoys, like skiing, golfing, exercising, reading, and traveling. He also looks forward to having more time to spend with his family and friends. “I have always enjoyed life, and I'm going to continue to enjoy life.”

Vender becomes emeritus professor of medicine effective July 1, 2024.

The Department of Internal Medicine at Yale School of Medicine is among the nation's premier departments, bringing together an elite cadre of clinicians, investigators, educators, and staff in one of the world's top medical schools. To learn more, visit Internal Medicine.

Submitted by Julie Parry on May 01, 2024