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The Man in the Hot Seat: An Interview with 2013 Academy President Paul Sternberg Jr., MD
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It seemed like a minor volunteer post to take on, when Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, was asked to become president of his state ophthalmology society. Yet just days later, he got a call from Georgia state Sen. Charles Walker about a scope-of-practice bill recently introduced in the legislature. Because the senator didn’t want the bill to be heard on the floor, he more or less demanded that Dr. Sternberg appear in his office the following Monday (he called on a Friday) to work out a compromise with an optometry leader. Dr. Sternberg’s busy surgery schedule at Emory University didn’t matter.

Paul Sternberg, MD
2013 Academy President Paul Sternberg Jr., MD

A compromise took four days to achieve. Reflecting back years later, Dr. Sternberg says, “If you hold all the cards, compromise means you lose.” Not only was that meeting a crash course in scope of practice and advocacy, it also launched the start of Dr. Sternberg’s involvement with the Academy … which this year encompasses the presidency.

If he hadn’t achieved so much in his career, or been seriously enthused by ophthalmology at an early age, a casual observer might think Dr. Sternberg was merely following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, both of whom were eye surgeons. “I do come from a family of ophthalmologists,” he said. “So you might think I was following the family business. But I’m the only one of five kids who went into medicine, and it always felt very natural; I was always interested in ophthalmology. It’s a profession through which you really provide value to the patient, and you see the difference in their lives every day. In fact, you see patients over decades sometimes and practically become members of each other’s families. Plus, ophthalmology has all the good things medicine can offer — you take care of both medical and surgical problems, you work with both your hands and your head, and you work with younger as well as older people.”

That lifelong enthusiasm for eye medicine has propelled Dr. Sternberg to accomplishments both prominent and numerous. After several years at Emory, he moved Vanderbilt University in Nashville. There he serves as both professor and chair of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, as well as chief medical officer for Vanderbilt Medical Group, overseeing a health care group that employs 2,700 physicians.

Dr. Sternberg is also a widely regarded retina specialist who helped develop the Academy’s largest and most popular Subspecialty Day meeting. He was the first program director of the official Retina Subspecialty Day meeting, held in Atlanta in 1995. Since then, it has grown from 868 attendees at that first meeting to more than 3,000, making it the largest retina meeting in the country.

Dr. Sternberg addresses LDP participants.
Dr. Sternberg addresses participants in the 15th Leadership Development Program class. He helped start the program.

He soon moved on to other Academy projects, however. In 1998, Dr. Sternberg helped Michael Brennan, MD, develop and implement the Academy’s Leadership Development Program, which welcomed its 15th class this year. Since then, Dr. Sternberg has also held numerous other Academy volunteer positions, touching everything from state affairs and EyeNet to communications and Focal Points.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that he is fairly sanguine about stepping into the Academy’s presidency. More easily daunted physicians might feel stressed just thinking about so many obligations on top of a robust clinical load. But when asked if the presidency of the Academy might threaten to become headache #1,000, he just chuckled. “I am hoping that there aren’t headaches, but then my DNA makes me someone who sees the cup half full — the eternal optimist. I’m not someone who gets stressed out too often,” he said.

Leading and representing his profession was not actually something Dr. Sternberg fathomed doing until recently. “I did pause at one point to make sure my dean was comfortable with the time commitment this demands. But he recognizes the importance and honor of serving in this position, both for me and for Vanderbilt. In fact, he appointed an associate chief medical officer to support my academic obligations for the next year. Past Academy presidents didn’t always have that kind of institutional support, so I’m grateful.”

What issues or themes does Dr. Sternberg see coming to his attention this year? “Physicians coming from the academic sector have a different set of experiences and perspectives than those from the private sector,” he said. “But I think it’s important to all of us that for younger ophthalmologists we are positive and inspirational about the profession. And that’s easy to do. The innovation in eye and vision research over the last 10 years has been incredible. We were all told at one time ‘Oh, you can’t fix this or that problem.’ But now when I see something daunting, I assume that 10 or 20 years from now, the daunting problem will be matched with an innovative solution.”

Dr. Sternberg knows that he will be called upon to navigate controversies, maybe even mediate solutions to some major disagreements in the Academy. “As an organization, we represent a broad spectrum of beliefs, and it becomes a delicate thing to take a forceful position. Vanderbilt, for example, early on decided to take a positive posture toward the Affordable Care Act. Living in the world that a teaching hospital must live in, seeing thousands of uninsured patients, we simply have to provide care other than what folks would get in an ER, where neither the long-term care nor the physician’s compensation is going to be adequate.”

In his relationships with those outside the Academy, Dr. Sternberg intends to stake out a national voice for eye surgeons. “We have to do everything we can so that ophthalmology retains an important and respected seat at the policy table,” he said. “In Washington, D.C., the Academy has an outstanding group of people and I support them 100 percent. Vision research is also something I think we must vigorously support, and that’s part of an ongoing tradition. Ophthalmology is always at the head of scientific innovation.”

Other problems, such as shortages of subspecialists and battles over scope of practice, may continue to vex the profession, he conceded. “Any solution to shortages in pediatrics, neuro or pathology is a tough issue. We have to make those corners of medicine attractive. We have to compete with the affections of the young residents and make those careers inspiring. Actually, I can say from experience that nothing is more inspiring than a young woman stopping you in a hallway to say, ‘You operated on me when I was one year old and now I’ve graduated from college.’ It’s a moment that answers the question, ‘Why are we doctors, and who are our patients?’ If we focus on what’s right for the patients, all will be well.”

However, even if the numbers of ophthalmologists were to grow, Dr. Sternberg noted, the time it would take for the number to grow usefully will not meaningfully help the next generation of Americans. “We need to consider the use of physician extenders — to redefine the role of the physician, since a lot of care can be provided using mid-level practitioners and home monitoring,” he said. There’s also a key role for optometry in eye care — to be highly valued as members of a team. But that collaboration, of course, cannot include surgery performed by nonsurgeons.”

Dr. Sternberg does indeed see the glass half full, for life in general and ophthalmic medicine specifically. “We are so talented in our leadership in ophthalmology. The dedication of these leaders has generally proven to be in the very best interest of the ophthalmologist. We are also gifted in our research, constantly showing the way to the rest of medicine with innovative solutions to intractable problems. I’ve stopped predicting what won’t happen, even if I can’t predict what will happen. Artificial retinas, for example — the dream of manmade vision, either prosthetic- or cell-based — is not even off the horizon all together. I refuse to say anything can’t happen.”

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About the author: Denny Smith is a former editor for EyeNet Magazine. Additional reporting by Christi A. Foist, YO Info’s managing editor.

 
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