Senior Associate Dean for Health Sciences Education
, Vanderbilt University Medical School
Growing up in Dover, Del., Bonnie Miller always enjoyed the sciences and felt a strong draw towards a service profession. There was a point where she briefly considered becoming a vet like her father. While supportive of a career in medicine, he wisely suggested Bonnie, who is barely five feet tall, might find caring for people a better fit than large animals.
A surgeon by training, the only other career Miller ever seriously considered was teaching. Today, she has merged her two professional loves as she oversees the education of young physicians at Vanderbilt.
"I have had several mentors along the way who affected my career path. John Tarpley, surgery residency program director at Vanderbilt, helped me realize how gratifying it is to be a full-time medical educator," she said. "Gerry Gotterer, who recently retired as a senior associate dean at Vanderbilt, took me under his wing when I transitioned to positions of greater educational leadership." She added Steven Gabbe, former dean of the medical school, entrusted her with responsibilities that demanded personal and professional growth.
Taking the lessons learned from her mentors and students, Miller has never been afraid to question traditional assumptions. "I love the creation of new and innovative programs that aim to nurture the ongoing development of scholarly and humane physicians," she said. "Even though we are extremely proud of our medical school and our learners, we know that we must improve the way we educate doctors so that we can improve the way we care for patients."
She loves to bring together an array of stakeholders with disparate perspectives in a model of collaboration and teamwork. "It is an exciting process done with the optimistic view that we can always be better." Miller said that for a long time, educators and practitioners have talked about the science and art of medicine. For years, however, only the science was taught with the expectation that art would come through experience and osmosis. Now, the art of medicine is increasingly being included in a well-rounded education. However, teaching shouldn't stop there in Miller's opinion.
"There's a third part that doesn't get talked about, and that is the system … so we have the art and the science, but all of that is practiced in a system." While the macro systems — access, cost, coverage — happen outside of medical schools, Miller said the micro system should be a point of emphasis in educating providers to work together in real world settings. "Do you have the correct people, processes and technology in place to achieve a desired result … the highest quality of care?" she questioned. "Quality and safety don't just happen; you have to plan for them."
Part of that planning, she said, is learning to work as teams in a collaborative manner. "Communication is a big part of systems," she noted, but added healthcare has traditionally been taught … and often executed … in silos.
She's more than willing to share that team spirit at home, too. Miller and her husband met as sophomores in college. They both came to Vanderbilt for residencies. After leaving for a year to complete fellowships, the couple returned to Nashville. They have three children — Ellen, 26, works in the financial sector in Boston; Nathan, 21, is graduating this month with a film major from the Tisch School at New York University; and Miriam, 17, is a junior at University School.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that during her downtime Miller loves needlework of all types. "I love textile arts in general … the combination of colors and shapes." Part precision, part art — working together to create a pattern — her hobby neatly mirrors her professional philosophy.