Dr. Michael Johns is honored for Lifetime Achievement at The National Physician of the Year Awards.

Dr. Michael Johns is a visionary who has influenced and shaped the roles of hospitals, medical education, and public health policy. Raised in a working class family in Detroit, Dr. Johns attended a Catholic seminary high school before studying biology and chemistry at Wayne State University. He studied medicine at the University of Michigan, where he did both his internship and residency in otolaryngology.

After a stint as assistant chief of Otolaryngology at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he joined the faculty at University of Virginia Medical Center. In 1984, Dr. Johns was recruited to Johns Hopkins as professor and chair of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. There, he developed an international reputation as an oncologic surgeon while building the department into one of the country’s largest and most prestigious. As associate dean, he reorganized the faculty clinical practice and initiated Johns Hopkins’ first outpatient center. During his term as Medical School dean and vice president of the Medical Faculty, he developed innovative technology transfer programs, helped elevate the school into first place in sponsored research, and reformed the curriculum so that it would be more relevant to the practice of medicine in the 21st century. Under his tenure, Johns Hopkins Hospital consistently ranked number one in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

In 1996, Dr. Johns became executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University. There, he positioned the Woodruff Health Sciences Center to be one of the nation’s preeminent academic health centers by creating the leading health care system in Georgia, and recruiting and retaining leading researchers and clinical investigators from around the world. Under his watch, a team at Emory created the special containment procedures that have been used during the country’s recent Ebola response.

Dr. Johns is widely known as a catalyst of new thinking in many areas of health policy and education, which is why he is asked to serve on diverse boards and committees, and to work with state and federal policy makers on topics ranging from training future physicians to national health system reform. Along with Dr. Kenneth Brigham, he published the book “Predictive Health” in 2012, outlining a new vision of medicine and healthcare.In June 2014, Dr. Johns returned to Michigan to serve as the Interim Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Michigan.

A Personal Perspective
by Stuart Diamond, Editor-in-Chief, Empowered Doctor

Each year when The Lifetime Achievement Award is presented at The National Physician of the Year Awards, the question arises: What should this award honor? Should it solely be intended for those research physicians whose genius and creativity have led to major breakthroughs in medicine? A Dr. Basil Hershkowitz, whose work on the development of the first flexible optical endoscopes led to one of the most important technological advances in the history of medicine. A Dr. Tom Starzl, who laid the foundation for the first organ transplants. Or Dr. John Mulliken, this year’s co-recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, whose selfless work decade after decade on facial birth defects and anomalies has impacted the lives of children worldwide.

Yet, is there another level of achievement that is as equally as important? The administrator, the college president, the chancellor, who has a vision of what healthcare can and should be in a society – and then sees the role of how medical and other institutions can help make this happen. A leader, who can take on the oft challenging task of herding hundreds of brilliant and opinionated faculty, physicians, staff and other employees into a coherent unit that not only serves the present healthcare situation, but can march over the horizon into new and uncharted frontiers.

Dr. Michael Johns is one such figure, a leader who consistently raised the bar at some of the most important medical institutions. He served as chancellor of Emory University (2007-2012) having previously led the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, encompassing Emory Healthcare, the Schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health and the Yerkes Primate Center. Before coming to Emory, Dr. Johns was Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. And more recently, he served as Interim Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Michigan.

Ascending to such a role is daunting in itself. First, you must prove yourself as a physician – and in many cases as a researcher and scientist. Simply said, few physicians will truly follow a leader unless they have shared the gauntlet of training and have proved themselves as a doctor first. Then one must be able to prove oneself as an able administrator of behemoth sized-bureaucracies, fearful in its labyrinthine-sized rules of red-tape. Once through that hurdle, you next take on budgets and fund-raising. You spend endless sleepless nights, staring at unbalanced finances, wondering what to do next. Your next hat is that as a salesman, as you become the chief fund-raiser for your organization. The success of the entire enterprise may rise or fall on your money-generating skills, and your ability to learn and analyze complex balance sheets and profit and loss statements. Then there is the politics. What complex institution isn’t rife with its own form of incestuous politics and back-biting? To be successful you need the confidence, if not downright hubris, to make decisions and go forward, as well as an authentic humility to actually listen to other people.

Then, if you have the energy you provide vision. Yes, in theory the Board and other consultants are supposed to help provide this “vision”, but its articulation and implementation still comes down usually to one person. And finally, if things go wrong, there is still only one person to blame.

Not many people are even interested in such a position. And most, who do enter the fray are often naïve as to what it might entail – learning, if they survive, only by trial by fire. Through it all, Dr. Michael Johns has not only survived, but thrived.

So what makes such a being like Dr. Johns tick? As an interviewer I have the privilege of asking questions – questions based on multiple perspectives – different angles from which to explore my subject. One part journalism, another part amateur psychology, a bit of anthropology, maybe even my own spiritual quest to find some universal truths – all to gain an adequate understanding of my subject. The truth found is usually in its complexity -paradoxes that simply refuse to be reduced to a single paradigm.

So the complexity of Michael Johns story begins in Detroit – a Catholic, working class, blue-collar family. A family of hard-won family imperatives, little money, and an understanding — learned early in life — that success is won through hard work – homework before play. Academic success in elementary school led to a stint at the local high school seminary, where the most promising students were usually eyed for the priesthood. However, the fates intervened and the pretty girls nearby took Michael’s eye and soul, and he took a different path – first to Wayne State and then the University of Michigan. What was the Church’s loss was to become medicine’s gain.

Yet, despite the many paths that took them to medicine, the majority of people who choose medicine – as least from my perspective as an interviewer – do so in part because it resonates with some deeply held spiritual, religious or philosophical aspect of their nature. While their ostensible worldview may have evolved since they learned early catechisms or other bedrock religious or spiritual views, there is an emotional foundational fabric that simply imbues their being – an idealism woven into the very aspect of who they are. You sense that with Dr. Johns, despite the breezy manner, the friendly countenance, there are unshakeable principles, moral and pragmatic, that shape how he approaches his work and world.

A deeper understanding of his worldview can be found in the book he co-wrote with Dr. Kenneth Brigham, Predicative Health: How We Can Reinvent Medicine to Extend the Best Years of Our Lives. The premise of the work is based on a simple truth. Prevention is better, and less expensive, than illness. Yes, everyone agrees, and the obvious is not an epiphany. However, implementing what is self-evident is not necessarily that simple in our disease-based system of professional medicine. What Drs. Johns and Brigham bring to the conversation is a vast overview of how our medical system works and how it doesn’t. Their work synthesizes breakthroughs in medical science with major cultural shifts on how patients can and should be treated, but looks at the cold-realities of the financial models behind the practice of medicine that rewards physicians handsomely for the treatment of a health problem and meagerly for its prevention. The ultimate goal of their vision of a new health model is to develop predicative strategies that diagnose potential health issues for an individual – years, even decades, into the future – well before any symptoms manifest – and intervene so that health problems simply don’t occur. Imagine a new world of health where disease is the rarest of occurrences – a time when each of us will live a long, robust life – well past100 years.

So what makes a Dr. Johns special and worthy of a Lifetime Achievement Award? It is the ability to not only to see and articulate a vison, but to then actually marshal the forces to lead our present medical culture toward a more enlightened direction of better health.


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