Compassion & Empathy

Reflections of Transformation from a Physician Leader to Patient and Back

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David Zaas, MD, MBA, is our guest this week on the Healthcare Experience Matters podcast. Simply put, Dr. Zaas is a man with a powerful story to tell. He reflects on his journey for us on today’s episode. This story includes his transition from a healthcare leader to a patient diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

Dr. Zaas serves as Chief Executive Officer for Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Health – Charleston Division and Chief Clinical Officer for MUSC Health. He previously served as the President of Duke Raleigh Hospital from 2014 to 2020. 

As he shares with us on today’s podcast, when Dr. Zaas transitioned from a role as a physician-scientist to patient, he found himself vulnerable, scared, and worried about the future. As a married, father of two boys, he was not worried about himself though—he was concerned about how to care for his wife and children. 

The Physician as a Patient

In the opening minutes of this podcast, Dr. Zaas described his initial shortcomings as a patient. This is something he finds common among many healthcare providers and leaders. 

“Like many physicians and physician leaders, I am traditionally not a very good patient,” he said. “I didn’t think I needed to see a primary care physician; I was married to a physician. But in January of 2017, I knew something was wrong.”

Dr. Zaas was very honest with us. He said he was not good at recognizing he needed help from others, but this experience changed him drastically. 

“I really learned that to be successful, I needed a team. I not only needed the physicians and the nurses, but I needed my wife, kids, and parents,” he said.

He noted that we are so much better when we are dependent on our teams and when we do not try to do everything ourselves. All of us need help from others. It sounds simple, but it is easy to neglect for many of us.

August 1, 2017

A day that Dr. Zaas will never forget is August 1, 2017—the day he was healthy enough to return to work. It was a milestone that saw his life, career, and dedication to serving others as a compassionate leader come full circle. 

On May 24, 2017, Dr. Zaas underwent a bone marrow transplant and asked his oncologist when he could return to work. Dr. Zaas was told he should ideally be off for six months. 

“I asked when was the fastest anyone has returned to work, and he said day 60,” Dr. Zaas told us. “In my mind I needed a goal, and I was determined to beat that record, so I returned on day 55 because I needed to have something to strive for as a goal-oriented person.”

Research and Innovation 

As a physician-scientist, Dr. Zaas always knew research and innovation was of paramount importance. This was never more evident than when he took on his newest role as a patient enrolled in a Phase I Clinical Trial. 

“One of the lessons I learned during my own journey was that offering patients access to research and innovation is patient-centered, and we need to be able to break down those barriers,” he said. 

Dr. Zaas emphasized the need to redesign systems and processes to allow all patients better access to these research and innovation opportunities. 

“It’s patient-centered and it’s what the patients and their family deserve,” he said. 

Learn More 

To listen to this podcast interview, please use the player below:

Please be sure to tune in to more episodes of our podcast. New episodes are released every Thursday morning on all major podcast platforms and YouTube. To learn more about Dr. Zaas and Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Health – Charleston Division, please visit their official website

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Meet David Zaas, MD, MBA; CEO (MUSC) Health – Charleston Division, and CCO for MUSC Health