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Making the World a Better Place

Researcher, internist and pediatrician creates better care for patients through innovation
By Cheryl England

Saul Weiner, MD, an internist and pediatrician, wears multiple hats these days as Vice Provost for Planning and Programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago and as Deputy Director at the VA Center of Innovation for Complex Chronic Healthcare. He’s also a professor of medicine, pediatrics and medical education at UIC and works as a staff physician seeing patients one day a week at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. How did he end up this way? “I’ve always chosen to pursue questions if they are interesting to me or take jobs if I thought I could learn something valuable,” he says.

Dr. Weiner jumped into pediatrics headfirst after receiving an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship as a medical student to work in Gabon. “I worked in a jungle hospital on a river with hippos,” he says. “As a fourth-year medical student in Africa, I was given vastly more responsibility than I would have been given in the U.S. and even ended up being in charge of pediatric care there some days. I learned a great deal but also wished the people who lived there had better health and better health care.”

That experience convinced Dr. Weiner to pursue a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics where he could treat a broad array of patients and conditions. But then an interesting thing happened. Dr. Weiner was selected for a prestigious three-year program by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to train to be a researcher.

“At first, I was interested in health policy,” he says. “But then I discovered that the question I wanted to pursue most came from observing medical students and residents: I noticed that while they were getting better at following evidence-based guidelines, they often overlooked the obstacles patients face in following a care plan, so the plan is doomed to fail despite adhering to the latest science.” He asked, “Could we, as a profession, do a better job of adapting care plans to patients’ individual needs and circumstances?”

As a result, Dr. Weiner decided to focus on how physicians could better care for patients by taking into account the particular life challenges they face when planning their care, a process he termed “contextualizing care.” Dr. Weiner then joined up with Alan Schwartz, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at UIC, to perform extensive research on the issue. (See “Contextualized Care” on page 7.) After a decade of groundbreaking work and many peer reviewed publications, they brought their findings together in a book this year, titled, “Listening for What Matters: Avoiding Contextual Errors in Health Care” (Oxford University Press).

While busy, Dr. Weiner finds the combination of research and administration engaging: “In research, I have an opportunity to pursue ideas I am excited about and figure out how to apply them to the real world,” he says. “But administration also draws on the part of me that wants to make the world a better place for people now. As a supervisor, I like creating a place that feels like a family; a place where the people who report to me know that I have their back so they feel comfortable and happy coming to work.”

Dr. Weiner’s Career Highlights

Graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in 1988 with a BA in social studies, Dr. Weiner then graduated from Dartmouth Medical School in 1993. He subsequently did his residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He’s won numerous awards including the University of Illinois at Chicago Distinguished Researcher of the Year in 2013, after having garnered $12.3 million in funding in the previous 12 years. He’s published more than 100 articles and abstracts and has held numerous academic and clinical positions.

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