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Dome - Honoring a man for ‘doing his job’

Dome June 2012

Honoring a man for ‘doing his job’

Date: June 15, 2012


Ron Peterson
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Few people in academia take more delight than to have recognition for their achievements embodied in an endowed professorship. But for Ron Peterson, such an acknowledgement was, well, just downright contrary to his well-known desire to avoid the limelight. “He did not want to be recognized for, as he put it, ‘just doing my job’,” says rheumatologist David Hellmann, vice dean and director of the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

And so it took a year of gentle but determined persuasion to convince Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, to accept one of the highest accolades in academic medicine: a professorship named in his honor.

In a recent ceremony, the Ronald R. Peterson Professorship in the Department of Medicine was dedicated officially, with Paul Scheel Jr., director of the Division of Nephrology, named its inaugural recipient.

The professorship recognizes Peterson’s extraordinary, transformative leadership as president of both Bayview (from 1984 to 1999) and The Johns Hopkins Hospital (from 1996 to the present), and as executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine (from 1997 to the present), and also his skill at expanding and enriching the partnership between the hospitals’ administrators and physicians.

Hellmann was the chief persuader. “I think what carried the day with Ron is the argument that the partnership of the school of medicine and Hopkins Hospital is a crucial part of our DNA, and that principle was so important that it was worth highlighting and having an enduring symbol to represent it,” Hellmann says. “I told Ron that you do have to take a hit for the team. Although you don’t like the limelight, I think the principle of partnership is so important here that you have to do this.”

In accepting the naming of the professorship in his honor, Peterson said he was proud that it would be recognized as a celebration of “the power of partnership within the unique academic medical center enterprise that is Johns Hopkins Medicine—partnership between hospital and medical school, partnership between business and the academy, partnership between lay administration and physician leadership.”

A 1970 graduate of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences who also has a master’s degree in hospital administration from George Washington University, Peterson began his Hopkins Medicine career in 1973 as an administrative resident at Hopkins Hospital. There he caught the eye of then-Hospital President Robert Heyssel, who appointed him successively as administrator for the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, the Hopkins Cost Improvement Program and the Children’s Medical and Surgical Center. Peterson excelled at each post.

In 1982, Heyssel dispatched Peterson to Baltimore City Hospitals as its manager under a contract with the city. It was a trial run to see if Hopkins could reduce that venerable municipal facility’s chronic deficits and potentially take it over. By 1984, Peterson and his team had done so well that Hopkins acquired the hospital, renaming it the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. In 1994, it was rechristened Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

From the beginning of his arrival on the Eastern Avenue campus, Peterson’s eagerness to establish a close working relationship with the Hopkins-affiliated faculty there was a key to its rejuvenation, growth and success, says Chester Schmidt, then director of psychiatry at the hospital.

“I was impressed by his willingness to have that partnership immediately,” says Schmidt, now chief medical officer for Johns Hopkins HealthCare, “and of course that persisted for all of the time that we worked together at what now is Bayview. “Ron demonstrated then and he demonstrates now his appreciation and his respect for physicians. Not all administrators do that.”

If a department showed its ability to grow, Peterson would make sure it had the resources to do so. “Anytime any one of us in the clinical department had a decent idea for program development, and we presented a good idea with a sound business basis, he would support it,” Schmidt says. “And it wouldn’t take him six months.”

Peterson would do that even when the proposed program initially would cost more money than it would bring in—provided it was, as John Burton, former director of the Division Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins Bayview, puts it, “the right thing to do.”

Burton observes that Hopkins Bayview now is the only hospital in the country with a major geriatrics program that is not affiliated with the Veteran’s Administration. It has grown exponentially without such federal funding—an achievement, Burton says, that is “totally a tribute to Ron Peterson.”

“Most geriatric programs are good and big because of the very large VA connection. We’re the exception, and the reason is because Ron Peterson was willing to listen to what we were doing, recognized that it had importance, and said, ‘you can’t do this alone—we’re in this together.’”

Among Burton’s proposals for geriatric expansion that Peterson championed were the department’s home-care program, which has served some 10,000 patients since its inception, and the development of a pioneering hip-fracture service that involves collaboration among emergency medicine, orthopedic surgery, geriatrics, nursing, and physical medicine and rehabilitation therapy.

“Now it’s part of the fabric of the institution here and in many other places nationwide,” Burton says. “It takes a very visionary leader who’s willing to say we’ve got to do what makes sense, we’ve got to do what’s right, let’s work together to see if it’s doable. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of hospital administrators would throw you out of the office,” Burton says.

Peterson also has maintained that focus on partnership at Hopkins Hospital. Johns Hopkins Medicine Dean/CEO Edward Miller, who says his favorite nickname for his working relationship with Peterson is “the dynamic duo,” also was an enthusiastic advocate for naming the new professorship for him.

“This chair,” Miller says, “will serve as an enduring reminder of what Ron Peterson has done to support the success of the faculty. I have never worked with someone I admire more. He works harder than anyone, not only for Hopkins, but for the community at large. He supports work and school programs; he encourages young people and demands excellence from the people who work for him. He has time for everyone. You can trust him completely. This professorship signifies the esteem that I have for him and the esteem that everyone at Hopkins has for him.”

The $2.5 million required to create the Peterson professorship came from an endowment-like fund established several years ago. Its source was the proceeds from the sale of off-campus dialysis centers that no longer were needed.

In addition to his aversion to the limelight, Peterson also initially was reluctant to have his name attached to the professorship because he felt that while he always had donated money to Hopkins, he had not given a couple of million dollars to establish a chair.

Hellmann overcame that objection by pointing out that it was Peterson’s collaborative work with Hopkins Bayview faculty decades earlier that created the renal medicine infrastructure to which the recently sold dialysis centers once had belonged.   

Peterson says he plans to stick around to help guarantee the continuity of Johns Hopkins Medicine after Miller hands over his post to incoming Dean/CEO Paul Rothman in June. In addition to working closely with Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels and the Johns Hopkins Medicine Board of Trustees, Peterson says he intends “to partner with Rothman to ensure that Johns Hopkins Medicine will be able to navigate the challenging times ahead for academic medicine.” 

—Neil A. Grauer

Someone like me

For Ron Peterson, Paul Scheel exemplifies the same traits for which Peterson himself has been recognized. Scheel, Peterson says, is a “remarkably solid Hopkins Medicine citizen” whose skill as a splendid physician, scientist and program-builder spans both the Johns Hopkins Bayview and East Baltimore campuses.

Scheel, director of the Division of Nephrology, was named the first recipient of the endowed professorship that honors Peterson’s administrative and leadership achievements at both hospitals and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Scheel has dramatically expanded Hopkins’ capacity to perform renal transplantation and manage chronic disease. He also “is an individual who is willing to step up to the plate to take on thankless administrative tasks,” Peterson says, “such as the oversight of conversion to ICD-10, a government mandate to dramatically change medical coding so that we can continue to be paid for the services we render.”

Internationally renowned for his expertise in the care of patients with renal disease, Scheel developed now-universally used therapeutic procedures for treating retroperitoneal fibrosis, a rare disorder that causes persistent inflammation of the area between the abdominal wall and the peritoneum, the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity.

He was the lead investigator in the analysis linking chronic kidney disease to the inhalation of silica dust, the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and a common threat to coal miners, foundry employees, stonecutters and workers in other such high-risk jobs. He also defined the mechanism through which the administration of immunoglobulin intravenously can cause acute renal failure.

A 1987 graduate of Georgetown University School of Medicine, Scheel completed his internship and residency in Hopkins Hospital’s Osler Medical Service. Following a fellowship in nephrology, he joined the faculty in 1992 as medical director of dialysis, a post he held until 2002. He also was director of renal transplantation from 1995 to 2001 and vice chair of clinical operations in the Department of Medicine at Hopkins Hospital from 2000 to 2006. In addition, he served as director of the Division of Nephrology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center from 1995 to 2001. He became head of Hopkins’ nephrology division in 2005.

Scheel, who also holds a master’s degree in business administration, has fostered the use of computer technology to improve patient care. He was in the forefront of a multidisciplinary collaboration to create “MedBed,” a Web-based patient assignment system that uses the technology perfected by package delivery companies to streamline the process of finding available beds for patients.

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