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The Road to Academic Emergency Medicine

Authors: Brit Long, MD (@long_brit, EM Attending Physician at SAUSHEC), Alex Koyfman, MD (@EMHighAK, EM Attending Physician, UTSW / Parkland Memorial Hospital), and Jennifer Robertson, MD, MSEd (Assistant Professor, Emory University, Atlanta GA)

Emergency physicians train to be highly proficient in the resuscitation and management of acutely ill patients.  In addition, all emergency medicine (EM) training programs focus on preparing physicians to care for these patients in community practice settings. While most EM graduates go on to practice in community settings, academic EM is an option for interested physicians.

In general, academic EM was established to provide the teaching, research, and leadership goals of the specialty. For current residents and community doctors, specific pathways for practicing academic EM are now available, which allow new graduates to directly enter academic EM from residency or transition from community to academic EM.

The decision to practice academic or community practice can be a difficult one to make, as there are perks and drawbacks in both settings. This post will evaluate the road to academic emergency medicine, the positives and negatives, and provide tips for success. However, before we start, we need to understand the difference between academic and community EM.

What is academic emergency medicine?

An academic emergency medicine practice is defined by its providers spending the majority of their time in resident education/supervision, along with scholarly activity (academic writing, teaching, or research).1-5 This focus came into existence in order to meet the teaching, research, administrative, and educational aspects of emergency medicine. The majority of academic providers are associated with a teaching hospital, and many have time protected for academic pursuits. Over 40% of current residents are interested in pursuing an academic career, but the road to determining whether an academic or community practice is right for you can be difficult.1

Unfortunately, many graduating residents feel ill prepared to begin a career in academics, and program directors agree. A survey of EM residency directors found that only 29% feel their program graduates are prepared for an academic career involving original research.2 Obstacles include insufficient research training and resident difficulty in finding knowledgeable collaborators and mentors.

What is community practice?

Community EM refers to practices based mostly on clinical medicine. In community EM, providers spend the majority of their time on clinical duties (usually shifts), rather than supervising and educating residents. Providers may have other obligations such as administrative tasks, but their primary focus is direct patient care. However, the actual amount of patient care duties will vary within individual departments, hospitals, and even parts of the country. Pay is often based on the number of shifts and relative value units (RVUs) per shift. However, overall pay can be also be affected by partnerships, bonuses based on productivity, patient satisfaction, and quality measures.

 Why academic EM?

Academic medicine seeks to pursue scholarship, expand knowledge, and pass on that knowledge. This is most commonly done through resident education and supervision. Education and scholarly activity are ultimately the goals, though these can take several forms. Academics provides career diversity, expertise development, formation of educational philosophy and techniques, specialty advancement, networking and formation of relationships, and research development. It can allow physicians to influence hospital and institution practices, and provide a bit of control in his or her schedule. Best of all, academic EM gives physicians the chance to affect and improve the care of many patients through resident education and scholarly activity.

There are several negative factors associated with academic EM. You will likely work more hours combined, make less money, work fewer clinical hours, and experience more pressure to be scholarly productive (we will cover this later), as compared to community practice.

We know the decision is difficult.

Residency rotations in both settings can provide glimpses of both types of practice. Hybrid programs are also in existence, and it is never too late to switch from one to the other.

In the meantime, how should a resident prepare for academic EM? Residency is the time to obtain several important skills.

1) The first is the most fundamental and important: clinical competency. Excellence in patient care is fine-tuned during residency. Every patient encounter, lecture, and time spent studying should focus on learning and enhancing clinical evaluation and management.

2) The next skill is teaching and knowledge dissemination. This is primarily learned via supervising junior residents or medical students at the bedside or by mentorship. In addition, lecture-based learning and teaching are also paramount.

3) Research skills are essential, no matter what environment you will practice in. Experience in reviewing the literature, establishing research questions and study designs, data collection/analysis, and presentation of data is important.  This can be difficult to obtain through journal clubs only, and some form of higher education is often beneficial for developing key research skills.

4) Expressing ideas and disseminating your knowledge are important, not only for abstracts, papers, and grants, but for hospital protocols and committees.

5) Administrative skills are helpful for both community and academic settings.

6) As most physicians (especially in EM) know, “people” skills are essential, not only to your clinical practice but also in forming long-lasting relationships and collaborations. Whether you go into academic or community EM, these skills are critical.

7) Finally, developing a personal learning strategy is important for continued clinical development.

Ok, so academic EM sounds like your thing… Now what?

There are several aspects of career planning that will help you find the best fit and succeed in academic EM. Each of the following components summarize key information for not only academic survival, but also for long term success.

Preparing for Academics

  1. The importance of a mentor – Mentorship is a key component of a healthy career. Forming a healthy mentoring relationship leads to academic success and career satisfaction, especially when formal postgraduate training is not completed.15-19 Look for mentors within the department, your institution, other institutions, prior training places, and from regional/national meetings. Mentors assist in setting and achieving goals, providing feedback on performance, building confidence and moral support, helping you get involved in committee work, introducing mentees to leaders in your field, protecting you and your interests, and keeping you on track. Your mentor is your advocate.   When choosing a mentor, there are several considerations. These include ensuring the mentor has a track record in the area of your interest, has available time and interest, possesses a personality that fits, and does not possess conflicts of interest. More than one mentor can be helpful, and mentors outside of EM can provide a different viewpoint for you.
  1. Setting time goals: 1, 3, 5, 10 years – Short and long term goals are necessary for a successful career, as a resident and faculty member. You have probably been setting goals all of your life, and just like before, it is important to possess concrete and obtainable goals. A career plan should be established, with each year broken down into separate goals that work toward achieving the long term goal. Keep in mind these may need to be revised, and these goals should be used as a guide for feedback/evaluation sessions. These goals should be discussed with your mentor, with regular meetings and feedback sessions to keep you on track.
  1. Finding your niche – Even though EM is a broad specialty, the majority of academic leaders are known for expertise in one or several areas of knowledge. This is essential for those forming a career: determine what interests or excites you and what opportunities are available to focus on these interests. Ask yourself what your passion is and what excites you. Another key is to consider what you do not enjoy. When you recognize what you like and dislike, then seek to get involved in your area of interest, with a goal of academic productivity (through research, lectures, or publishing). Research projects should also focus on this. Because of EM’s broad spectrum, some may want to target what’s currently available at their institution. Others may take too much on, spreading themselves too thin. It can be difficult to focus on one or two areas, but do your best to choose what interests you the most.
  1. Keep an academic portfolio and curriculum vitae – As most know, a curriculum vitae (CV) is a necessity. Even though different formats may be used, all contain the same information. Your mentor and senior department leadership can provide valuable assistance in forming and fine-tuning your CV. A personal academic profile or portfolio should also be maintained, as this summarizes your teaching, compiles your awards and evaluations, and should also contain examples of lectures and other academic achievements. Both are vital for academic success and promotion.
  1. Join an EM organization – Several emergency medicine societies are available, and each can provide significant benefits. Organizations include AAEM, ACEP, SAEM, CORD, NAEMSP, and several others. These organizations provide valuable networking and socializing opportunities for residents and faculty of all levels. Many of these organizations also have committees, which provide opportunities to improve nonclinical educational skills, form relationships with physicians with similar interests, and contribute to EM. If you can, attend meetings that allow open attendance. You will gain valuable skills in learning how to manage meetings and conferences by watching those in charge.
  1. Networking – There are several aspects to networking. Joining a committee or task force can be helpful and provide links to other departments and senior leaders. Speaking with everyone in the department, from interns to department chair, can form relationships that last. Everyone in EM has lessons learned or advice they can offer. Ask senior department members for connections or to introduce you to other leaders.
  1. Remember your colleagues and provide assistance to others – An academic physician with goals will develop and advance. As you begin to grow in your career, seek to help and mentor others. You obtained your success with the assistance of others, including your mentor and family, and you need to extend this same courtesy to others around you. Involve others in your projects and educational goals. By seeking the advancement of other EM colleagues, you form friendships and long-lasting relationships. If you switched programs, remember those back home and acknowledge them in your success.

What about postgraduate training?

Postgraduate training can help through providing focus on future work, as well as training in teaching, writing, research, and funding. Unfortunately, medical school and residency often do not prepare physicians for an academic career. Though not mandatory for an academic position, postgraduate training can facilitate academic training, enhance career satisfaction, and increase chances of academic success. This training also assists mentoring relationships and collaborative relationships. Dedicated postgraduate training may be the only means of obtaining truly protected time to develop academic skills. Interestingly, fellowship or postgraduate-trained physicians are more likely to obtain success and career satisfaction if involved in an academic program. This training provides increased job mastery, leading to less stress, greater certainty, and improved vision of career goals. Fellowships include pediatric EM, toxicology, undersea and hyperbaric medicine, sports medicine, ultrasound, palliative care, EMS, critical care, and several others. However, further training does delay maximum salary potential.

If you are considering a fellowship, look at each program’s expected clinical time, training value, access to mentors, research opportunities, and total experience. The vast majority of EM fellowship programs offer complete, valuable experiences. If interested in education, fellowship training necessity is less defined. This fellowship is growing, but many departments offer formal, structured, multiyear educational training opportunities. For more information on fellowships, please see EMRA’s complete guide at: https://www.emra.org/uploadedfiles/emra/emra_publications/emra_fellowshipguide_v1_0816.pdf

The nuts and bolts for success in academic EM

What roles are there? Academic EM is comprised of many positions, and each institution and program will vary. Research roles include director, clinical trial director, research advisor, and research assistants’ program director. Educational roles can be residency director, associate residency director, medical student director, medical school leadership (dean), rotating resident director, fellowship director, CME director, hospital committee director, and others. There are also specialty roles such as ultrasound, hyperbaric chamber, chest pain, etc. Administrative roles include chief/chair, EMS director, operations director, pediatric ED director, CQI/Risk management director, and others.

Finding the right program – A program that will provide the environment and tools to help you flourish is important. First, characterize the institution, and evaluate what the program rewards (publications, lectures, clinical throughput). Are you just another cog in a vast machine? What would happen if you leave the program? You should ensure true opportunities to advance clinically and professionally exist in the program. Ultimately, look at what the institution and the program can do for you, rather than what you can do for the institution/program.  

Several program types or models possess different attributes. The egalitarian model treats everyone the same, regardless of specific talents or interests. Faculty work similar numbers of shifts, teach a similar number of lectures, carry similar administrate duties, and are expected to have similar productivity. The specialization model demonstrates a more team-based approach. All faculty work clinically, but the department can modify career development to better match faculty member strengths, weaknesses, interests, and dislikes. Shift numbers can vary based on faculty member roles and productivity.

Promotion and tenure – There are progressive ranks with timelines for academic physicians including assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. Many are based on specific criteria such as publications, grants, regional/national recognition, teaching portfolios, and clinical productivity. An area of focus or niche can be helpful. This should be discussed with your department/program leadership and mentor. A mark of a strong program is a definitive track for career advancement, so you must inquire about this component of the academic program. Many offer workshops or provide further faculty development, which can significantly improve your advancement.

Research – Research is one of the fundamental means of growth for EM. The research environment physicians experience during residency often shapes future interest in research.1,4  At its core, research involves formulating a question, addressing the question with appropriate study design, collection and interpretation of data, and presenting the results in a peer-reviewed journal. This is often a long process, requiring time, effort, and mentorship for residents. Faculty have several goals when it comes to research: conducting research themselves, educating residents on scientific study, and/or how to conduct a study.

A large number of relevant areas of study are in existence. The majority of academic centers will desire their physicians to be “academically productive,” or obtain clinically relevant publications or grants. Research topics can be clinical, basic science, education, policy, or clinical operations. Mentorship and senior physician assistance to residents and new faculty seeking a research track are essential. Properly forming a research question and designing a protocol can be challenging, and thus, the more experience you can obtain, the better.

Teaching – Education is one of the key factors in an academic position. All physicians teach, whether the audience is nurses, technicians, or other physicians. One major component of an academic program is working with residents. Most programs expect academic clinicians to teach on shift as well as present lectures at conferences several times per year. This aspect is often one of the most fulfilling aspects of academic medicine, as you have the opportunity to affect the growth of future EM physicians. You may also work with students and off-service residents, and your relationship with these learners can have significant impact on their education, patient care, and relationships with the emergency department in their future careers.

Residency provides valuable time for honing educational skills. Some programs have dedicated programs for teaching, while others expect those interested in teaching to pick up the skills on their own. Focusing on shift teaching, presentation skills, and creation of lectures are great places to start for residents and new faculty. In emergency medicine, it can be difficult to work on your teaching skills, as there are so many options for teaching and so many different learners. Many adult learners seek information that will directly and positively impact their future careers. Thus, it is important to focus on how individuals learn and how you can make a difference in their learning experiences.

Teaching involves the ability to observe, question, and review trainee performance in actual patient care settings. When developing your own education techniques, look at the educators around you. New faculty and senior residents should pay close attention to those teachers who demonstrate master education skills. At the same time, strongly consider providers who are working on their own deficiencies. You should seek to recognize and understand these deficiencies so you can avoid them. Recognizing these skills and one’s own shortcomings will allow you to grow as an educator.

Scholarly Activity – One major aspect of an academic career is scholarly activity. In the past this included writing, either book chapters, original research, or review articles. The majority of academic programs still rely on clinical research and formal publication in medical journals. The academic environment is evolving, with several other opportunities. Free Open Access Medical Education (FOAMed) is one of these, with a growth of blogs and podcasts. Many academic physicians have now based their career on this avenue. Other options include ACEP’s Critical Decisions in Emergency Medicine, case reports, images, and specialty organization newsletters. Most programs will ask for at least one lecture per academic year, often grand rounds. However, speaking at regional, national, or international meetings is another means of scholarly productivity.

Once you have a project, seek to present the results in multiple settings and formats. Start with presenting an abstract at a conference, then seek publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. A FOAMed blog publication is also an option. Presenting this further at other functions, such as a grand rounds lecture, offers another avenue.  Publication in this format develops writing skills, develops an area of expertise, and advances your career. Remember, most programs still focus productivity on peer-reviewed publications.

The Literature – Residency programs usually promote some form of literature understanding through several formats: journal clubs, evidence-based medicine projects, and education on clinical shifts. Faculty may lead discussions or projects for literature awareness, aimed at promoting a deeper understanding of EM studies. For faculty, a key component of academics is staying abreast of the current literature, as well as “classic” studies. This can be difficult with all of your other duties and clinical shifts, but this is vital to your own education. There are multiple means of remaining current, from subscriptions to journals (Annals of EM, American Journal of EM, Journal of EM, etc.), podcasts (EM:RAP, EMA, EMCrit), and blogs (ALiEM, emDocs, Core EM, EM Updates, REBEL EM). FOAMed has revolutionized medical learning, and residents and faculty can use FOAMed to remain abreast of new, exciting medical updates.

Goals and Persistence – Specific goals with a timeline are a necessity for success in academic medicine, and they must be written down to solidify their importance. The act of setting the goal with timeline, verbalizing it, and writing it creates a commitment. Remember, academic medicine can be and will be difficult. There will be setbacks, but do not be discouraged. You will have papers and grants rejected. Make changes and keep going.

Collaboration – Finding others interested in your niche or topic can benefit. With our schedules, it can be difficult to frequently meet with your mentor to discuss areas of interest. This is where collaboration can help. Team members can provide skills and perspectives that will improve the quality of projects. Just make sure you set specific goals for the project, with a timeline.

Other Specifics – Determine what percentage of your work week should be clinical and what should be given to the rest of your academic pursuits. You should consider what you want to be doing in 5-10 years. Where do you see yourself? Saying “no” is ok if you have too much on your plate.

I think I know how to succeed, but what can I mess up?

There are many pitfalls in academics. These include not enough protection from other duties (working too many clinical shifts with the expectation for academic productivity), not enough training for an academic career (research focus without training on research question and protocol formation), failure to have a mentor (one of the cornerstones of academic success), failure to form a plan/timeline of goals, lack of balance (which leads to burnout), biting off too much, and not listening to feedback.

Importance of Balance – Maintain balance and block off time for your family and hobbies. Success takes time, and it will not occur overnight. Recent years have seen an emphasis on physician health. This really comes down to balancing many aspects of life including your shifts, academics, community activities, exercise, hobbies, family, religious/spiritual concerns, friends, and future plans. Pushing too hard and too fast with too much will lead to burnout.

The Decision – Residency is a great time to explore academics and community practice. Rotations in both settings can help you determine which practice is the best fit for you. You can always switch settings, or in other words, it is never too late to go from community to academic practice. Work on perfecting your clinical skills and management early, as this is essential to both academic and community medicine.

Thanks for reading. For more, please see the resident section of the CORD website at http://www.cordem.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=4077

Please comment below with other tips or questions!

References/Further Reading

  1. Stern SA, Kim HM, Neacy K, Dronen SC, Mertz M. The impact of environmental factors on emergency medicine resident career choice. Acad Emerg Med. 1999 Apr;6(4):262-70.
  2. Neacy K, Stern SA, Kim HM, Dronen SC. Resident perception of academic skills training and impact on academic career choice. Acad Emerg Med. 2000; 7:1408–15.
  3. Aycock RD, Weizberg M, Hahn B, Weiserbs KF, Ardolic B. A survey of academic emergency medicine department chairs on hiring new attending physicians. J Emerg Med. 2014 Jul;47(1):92-8.
  4. Sanders AB, Fulginiti JV, Witzke DB, Bangs KA. Characteristics influencing career decisions of academic and nonacademic emergency physicians. Ann Emerg Med. 1994;23:81–7
  5. Clinton JE. Educating academic emergency physicians. Acad Emerg Med. 1999;6:260–1.
  6. Stead LG, Sadosty AT, Decker WW. Academic career development for emergency medicine residents: a road map. Acad Emerg Med 2005 May;12(5):412-16.
  7. Hobgood C, Zink B (eds). Emergency Medicine: An Academic Career Guide, ed 2. Lansing, MI: Society for Academic Emergency Medicine; 2000.
  8. Faculty Development Web site. Available at: www.saem.org/ facdev/fac_dev_handbook/. Accessed Nov 10, 2016.
  9. Cydulka C. Preparing for a career in academics. Emergency Medicine: An Academic Career Guide. Available at: http:// www.saem.org. Accessed Sep 18, 2001.
  10. Hall KN, Wakeman MA. Residency-trained emergency physicians: their demographics, practice evolution and attrition from emergency medicine. J Emerg Med. 1999;17(1):7-15.
  11. Reinhart MA, Munger BS, Rund DA. American Board of Emergency Medicine Longitudinal Study of Emergency Physicians. Ann Emerg Med 1999;33(1):22-32.
  12. Kellerman AL. Are you considering an academic career? EMRA. Available at https://www.emra.org/resources/career-planning/practice-spaces/are-you-considering-an-academic-career-/. Accessed 04 November 2016.
  13. Pines JM. The young physician in academic emergency medicine: tips for success. AAEM. Available at http://www.ypsaaem.org/yps-articles/past-yps-articles/2006/the-young-physician-in-academic-emergency-medicine-tips-for-success. Accessed 04 November 2016.
  14. Sokolove P, Stern S, Baren J. An academic career: is it right for you? 2008 SAEM Annual Meeting, May 2008. Available at http://www.slideshare.net/changezkn/life-after-residency-academic-emergency-medicine. Accessed 04 November 2016.
  15. Taylor JS. Academic Medicine 2001;76:366-372.
  16. Stack SJ, Watson MJ. Enriching the resident-faculty relationship. Ann Emerg Med. 2001; 38:336–8.
  17. Osborn TM, Waeckerle JF, Perina D, Keyes LE. Mentorship: through the looking glass into our future. Ann Emerg Med. 1999; 34:285–9.
  18. Hazzard WR. Mentoring across the professional lifespan in academic geriatrics. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1999; 47:1466–70.
  19. Peluchette JV, Jeanquart S. Professionals’ use of different mentor sources at various career stages: implications for career success. J Soc Psychol. 2000; 140:549–64.
  20. Holmboe ES, Ward DS, Reznick RK, Katsufrakis PJ, Leslie KM, Patel VL, Ray DD, Nelson EA. Faculty development in assessment: the missing link in competency-based medical education. Acad Med. 2011; 86(4):460-7.

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