Faculty Affairs News

Dr. Polly Parsons: Looking Back and Moving Forward

July 13, 2022 by Janet L. Essman Franz

On July 11, E.L. Amidon Chair and Professor of Medicine Polly Parsons, M.D., began the transition to her new role as President and CEO of the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine (AAIM). We sat down with Dr. Parsons to reflect on her 16 years at the helm of the department, review her accomplishments and consider the department’s growth, struggles and triumphs.

Polly Parsons, M.D., has guided the Department of Medicine since 2006. She is transitioning to a new role as President and CEO of the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine. (photo: Andy Duback)

On July 11, E.L. Amidon Chair and Professor of Medicine Polly Parsons, M.D., began the transition to her new role as President and CEO of the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine (AAIM). Dr. Parsons came to the University of Vermont in 2000 as a Professor of Medicine and Director of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. She became Interim Chair of Medicine in 2005, and in 2006 she was named to the Amidon Chair. Dr. Parsons will retain her duties as department chair before fully transitioning to her new position at AAIM on October 1, 2022.

We sat down with Dr. Parsons to reflect on her 16 years at the helm of the department, review her accomplishments and consider the department’s growth, struggles and triumphs.

What were your greatest accomplishments as department chair?

Growing the department’s Clinical Services, Education, Research

During my tenure, the department integrated primary care internal medicine into three highly successful new divisions: Hospital Medicine, General Internal Medicine and Geriatric Medicine. This integration has benefitted patients, students, residents, fellows and faculty. As we’ve expanded, the department has continued to be a leader in research, education, and clinical care.

Recruitment and retention have been major focuses, especially in the last couple years as things became more challenging for everyone. We now have 220 faculty, with six vice chairs and 14 division chiefs, and multiple layers of people below that. This is a big team.

As we’ve grown, we increased the spectrum of clinical services that we provide, both locally and throughout the network. We provide education across the spectrum, including undergraduate education on the main campus, graduate students, medical students throughout all four years, clerkships for medical students, residents in internal medicine and dermatology, and fellowships in 10 different areas.

We’ve also expanded our scholarly output, both in the number of individuals involved in research and in the diversity of academic pursuits. Across every division in the department, we have people working in clinical trials, bench research, and quality space. We do research at the medical center and at the university and have substantial leadership and administrative support for research across the department. We expanded internal funding for research in the Department of Medicine, with a focus on junior investigators. We’re seeing more people contributing to academic research at the state and national levels, and more who are leaders in their scholarly areas.

Fostering Leadership

Over the years we’ve had an increasing number of vice chairs and they have worked hard to encourage faculty and help them grow. Very little happens at the medical school or in the hospital that doesn’t impact our department. We’re often the ones called on for expertise, and we’ve been able to help both institutions.

As our faculty become comfortable being the resident experts, they take on leadership roles, and they become known in their fields of expertise. As a result, we have more and more faculty doing national organizational work. I encourage their involvement in national organizations. It gets our name out there, increases our visibility among medical students and residents and helps with faculty and staff recruitment.

Creating New Opportunities for Faculty

In the past few years, faculty and staff have identified opportunities and helped us run with them, creating successful initiatives and opportunities to excel. For example, we created the Quality Program, designed for faculty who wish to develop, implement, and share results of quality improvement, patient safety and high value care projects that improve health and eliminate wasteful practices. The program serves as a resource center and laboratory to support improvements in care delivery, education and scholarship in quality, safety and value.

During the pandemic, faculty and staff started the Department of Medicine Gender Equity Group, and the Department of Medicine Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. These groups support faculty, residents, students and staff and help us increase representation, advancement and workplace satisfaction among underrepresented people in the department in alignment with the UVM Medical Center, UVM Health Network and Larner College of Medicine.

What are you most proud of?

The Department’s Stability, Creativity, and Resiliency

I’m going to leave a department that continues to work well because it has a team of great leaders, amazing staff, vice chairs, division chiefs, and faculty who collectively work together to be tremendously successful.  Most of our staff have been in the department for a long period of time. It means that we’ve provided a place where people enjoy working with their colleagues, and where they can be successful.

In 16 years, you go through some phenomenally wonderful times, and some difficult times. We experienced the economic downturn of 2007-2008, a pandemic, and a cyber-attack. Each time, everybody in the department has supported each other, and what’s come out of those experiences has been very creative.

One example of something great that resulted from a challenging time is SPARK-VT, an entrepreneurship program that provides internal funding opportunities for faculty to successfully bring innovations to the marketplace. The idea sprang from the economic downturn in the mid-2000s, when research funding was down. I had seen the SPARK program in other states, and I felt that it could work in Vermont. Department of Medicine faculty made it happen, establishing the SPARK-VT program here in 2012, and it quickly expanded into a university-wide program (sponsored by UVM Office of the Vice President for Research).

When the pandemic started, we quickly adapted to seeing patients virtually, and transitioned to teaching virtually  – literally, within the hour. There were succession plans for all leaders so everybody that had any leadership role in the department had a plan for if they got sick, who was going to cover for them, and how that would work. Everybody here got on board big time. By September of 2020, Vermont was cited by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Officer to the President of the United States, as being the role model for states across the country.

In October 2020, we experienced a cyberattack, with UVM Health Network computer systems down.  Again, everyone in this department rapidly worked together to care for patients without electronic health records. We pulled patient charts from old filing cabinets and learned how to run a department using text messaging. We created texting cascades to make sure everyone had information and stayed together. People maintained their sense of humor throughout.

We’ve been through some great times, and some challenging times, and people keep coming up with amazing things, even when they are tired. People here go above and beyond, seeing opportunities and new ideas. Our department doesn’t sit still —there’s always something new on the horizon.

What are you looking forward to in your new role?

Continuing my work in internal medicine leadership

AAIM is the voice for academic internal medicine with exciting missions that include the spectrum of medical student education through transitions of career physicians and researchers working in the broad scope of internal medicine. It’s like a department with a lot of divisions with collective goals, so there will be similarities to what I do now as a department chair. I’ll be working with a great collaborative staff and members who are enthusiastic and engaged. It’s an opportunity to continue working in internal medicine in a leadership role. I will also continue my national work as scientific director for the Parker B. Francis Foundation, which funds junior investigators doing research in pulmonary critical care.