Patient Care

Hospitalist James O’Callaghan Finds Career Satisfaction in Pediatric Medicine


Lean thinking teaches you that change and improvement do not come down from leadership, but rather develop up from front-line workers. Group leaders need to continue seeing patients to truly understand the processes and problems inherent in clinical work.

It took a while for James J. O’Callaghan, MD, FAAP, FHM, to settle on a career path. First, he pursued the life of a chemical engineer. Then, in his third year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., he realized the kind of job he would be getting into was not quite for him. His then-girlfriend was a pre-med student, and it wasn’t long until he switched majors.

Hospital medicine drew his interest during residency, when he spent a monthlong rotation with a small group of physicians at a community hospital in Cleveland.

“Their days consisted of rounding on pediatric inpatients, examining normal newborns, completing pediatric consults in the ED, and performing minor procedures on the floor,” he says. “To me, it seemed the perfect job.”

Dr. O’Callaghan married an adult-medicine hospitalist and moved to Seattle, but he could not find a good fit in a hospitalist practice. He did private practice for two years, and in 2004, he landed a position in pediatric hospital medicine.

“I quickly changed career paths,” he says.

Dr. O’Callaghan is now a regional pediatric hospitalist at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, Wash., and a medical hospitalist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington and one of nine new Team Hospitalist members, The Hospitalist’s volunteer editorial advisory group.

As the section head for pediatrics at Evergreen, Dr. O’Callaghan spends most of his time seeing patients. However, he has in recent years developed a keen interest in quality improvement (QI). He’s the lead pediatric hospitalist on two clinical pathways at Seattle Children’s and has been an active member of SHM’s Hospital Quality and Patient Safety Committee since 2012.

“I want to continue to expand on this QI work,” he says, “with the goal of developing into a formal QI role at either, or both, hospitals.”

Question: What do you like most about working as a hospitalist?

Answer: I like the fact that the work I am doing as a hospitalist can have both an immediate impact on a single patient and a prolonged impact on multiple patients. I can admit a child with community-acquired pneumonia and, through my treatment, prevent serious sequelae from developing. However, I can also develop an evidenced-based, community-acquired pneumonia pathway and, potentially, affect the care of hundreds of children. There is immediate gratification in treating today’s patient and delayed gratification knowing that you are helping many of tomorrow’s patients.

Q: What do you dislike?

A: One of the hardest parts of a career in HM is trying to effect culture change. Hospital systems are typically large, complex organizations with their own culture. In order to successfully produce sustainable, long-term improvement, you must change this culture. You can perform a robust search of the literature to produce a brilliant clinical-care path, but unless you can affect behavior, your work and effort may not last. It can be frustrating to think you have the answer to a clinical problem only to see your effort fail because you could not change culture.

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in HM in your career?

A: In the early years, much of the conversation in HM was centered on the viability of a career in HM. Could one make a sustainable career in HM? Would hospitals and health systems continue to support physicians in HM? The biggest change I have seen is that we are no longer having those conversations. Now, the conversations are focused on determining which areas of medicine will be owned by HM: First it was QI work, then patient safety, and now resource utilization and cost containment. We are no longer spending time and energy worrying about the future of HM, but rather now our efforts are focused on the present work of HM. As a sustainable career, HM is here to stay.

Q: For group leaders, why is it important for you to continue seeing patients?

A: In my QI work, I have studied Lean thinking and methodology. Lean thinking teaches you that change and improvement do not come down from leadership, but rather develop up from front-line workers. Group leaders need to continue seeing patients to truly understand the processes and problems inherent in clinical work. Effective solutions must come from those actually doing the work, rather than from those managing the work from above.

Q: What does it mean to you to be elected a Fellow in Hospital Medicine?

A: It meant that I had committed fully to a career in hospital medicine. I use the FHM designation proudly in all my communications, as a signal to others of my commitment and dedication to hospital medicine. Someday, I hope to earn the designation of SFHM, as a validation and recognition of my contributions to the field of pediatric hospital medicine.

Q: When you aren’t working, what is important to you?

A: After family, it is important for me to maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay in shape. I am able to commute to Seattle Children’s Hospital by bicycle and I try to run two to three times a week. I squeeze in half-marathons and marathons, along with century [100 miles] and double-century bicycle rides each year.

Q: If you weren’t a doctor, what would you be doing right now?

A: I would love to be a stay-at-home father for my boys and also devote the time and energy into pursuing a career in trail running.

Q: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

A: I recently read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” as part of a management training course at Seattle Children’s Hospital. This easy-to-read, highly entertaining book clearly demonstrates the culture changes that need to occur for companies to move from good to great. As a field, hospital medicine, with its focus on QI work and patient safety, is now in the midst of trying to become “great.”

Q: How many Apple products (phones, iPods, tablets, iTunes, etc.) do you interface with in a given week?

A: As many as possible. My wife and I own two iPhones, two iPads, and a MacBook Air, which she thinks we share but, in actuality, is mine. We are hoping to purchase a Mac desktop, and then we will have fully given over to the dark side.

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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