My Conference Experience: Q and A with ACGME Board Chair Dr. Karen Nichols

14 April 2021
Dr. Nichols

Karen J. Nichols, DO, MA, MACOI, FACP, CS-F is the current Chair of the ACGME Board of Directors, having assumed this role in September 2020. We asked Dr. Nichols to talk about her professional experience, her role, and her experience with the ACGME’s first-ever virtual Annual Educational Conference.


Q: Tell us about your background and academic and professional roles and appointments. What brought you to medicine, to GME, to the ACGME?

A: Becoming a physician was my second career after being a medical technologist for seven years, serving as chief of the lab in a 250-bed hospital for most of that time. I earned a Master’s degree in management with a specialty in health care administration during that time. A couple of well-timed questions from the pathologist triggered my pathway to medical school at Kansas City University - College of Osteopathic Medicine. Following my internship and residency at the 500-bed Oklahoma State University Tulsa Regional Medical Center, I moved back home to Arizona to join a fellow residency mate in the private practice of internal medicine/geriatrics. I was elected as the hospital Chair of Internal Medicine and then Chief of Staff, moving into organized medicine leadership as President of the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association, the American College of Osteopathic Internists, and eventually the American Osteopathic Association (AOA). I am honored to have been the first woman to hold all those positions.

In my 12th year of practice, the Midwestern University/Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine (MWU/AZCOM) opened on the other side of Phoenix. I eventually split my time between my private practice and academe. I was MWU/AZCOM Chair of Internal Medicine and Assistant Dean of Post-Doctoral Education, serving in both of those academic roles for five years. I am proud to have facilitated the establishment of residency programs in disparate corners of the state, in Kingman and Sierra Vista, Arizona. I then accepted the position of Dean of the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, serving in that role for 16 years. That does count the sabbatical year I took to serve as the AOA President. I am proud that we established the endowed Costin Institute for Osteopathic Medical Educators that has trained over 200 educators who serve at colleges of osteopathic medicine. Fast forward to 2015, when the transition to a single GME accreditation system [a collaboration of the ACGME, AOA, and Association of American Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM)] was launched and I was one of the first two DOs elected from the AOA nominees to serve on the ACGME Board of Directors. What a wonderful opportunity and experience to join the ACGME team!

Q: This is your first Annual Educational Conference as Chair of the Board of Directors., and this conference was the first we’ve held entirely in the virtual setting. What was your experience with the conference? How did you find the virtual platform, the content, the experience? And how did it compare with past in-person conferences for you?

A: I didn’t think I would like our virtual conference as much as I did! While we are certainly getting used to this format for all our various medical conferences, our ACGME staff deserves kudos for continuing to raise the bar on the quality of presentations. While I would love to attend our conference in person and be able to meet old friends and make new ones, the chat function still allows a semblance of spontaneity during the talks. I do miss that palpable sense of the magnitude of what we all do when you can see the huge number of attendees at our meetings. On the other hand, the virtual platform used for this Annual Educational Conference is one of the best I have ever seen!

Q: Which sessions did you particularly enjoy this year and why?

A: That is a difficult question! I thought the plenary sessions were terrific. And while I have started to view some of the simultaneous sessions, I have several more to watch. Having access to all the session links is great. In summary, the quality and variety of the presentations I have seen are superb.

Q: Where do you think the conference adds the most value?

A: I think the opportunity to present this depth and breadth of offerings is its strong suit, as has been the case for many years.

Q: Do you have any suggestions on how to enhance the conference?

A: [I hope we can] get back in person and keep the virtual links to sessions you can’t attend. “Hybrid” is the word of the year!

Q: Off the topic of the conference, you became Chair of the ACGME Board of Directors last fall, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talk a little about what serving in this role means to you and what you see as the Board’s role in this unprecedented time in health care and public health?

A: Yes, I became Chair of the ACGME Board in middle of the pandemic. That provides major challenges as we need to work together effectively as a Board and that depends strongly on getting acquainted with and learning the strengths and contributions that our fellow Board members bring to the table. Once again, our staff has developed processes to create those connections and again, we are learning that we can employ the virtual platform effectively. When we are back in person, we will still benefit from a hybrid approach to the Board’s orientation process.

Q: What are your goals as Chair of the Board? And anything else you’d like to add?

A: The chair and Board always have the over-riding goal of ensuring that the ACGME meets our mission. The Board had not long ago updated the ACGME mission to reflect the overall purpose of the ACGME as follows:

The mission of the ACGME is to improve health care and population health by assessing and enhancing the quality of resident and fellow physicians’ education through advancements in accreditation and education.

These unstable times have also triggered many of us to stop and reflect on exactly what we, as physicians, do and why. The medical literature is now filled with publications focusing on the continued need to honor the physician/patient relationship; to promote communication; to emphasize and respect the human-human connection. So our goal is always to meet the ACGME mission.

I also emphasize that we must remember that as physicians, we are still about competence AND caring; renewing the heart of medicine.