Kelley Skeff Delivers Commencement Address at Georgetown University School of Medicine

Kelley Skeff, MD, PhD, delivered the commencement address on May 22.
Lisa Helfert, Georgetown University

Kelley Skeff’s “pragmatic and creative thinking has … change[d] the very topography of the ever evolving landscape of medical education,” said Edward B. Healton, vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University School of Medicine (GUSM) and executive dean of the medical school. Healton introduced Skeff as GUSM’s 2016 commencement speaker and conferred upon him an honorary degree “for his devotion to the medical profession, for his commitment to educating the educators and for the worldwide reach of his imaginative thinking about medical education.”

In his address, Skeff challenged the graduating class to “make the care of patients and the quality of our system better than when you arrived,” and he urged them to use the abilities nurtured at Georgetown to help not only their patients but also their colleagues and the profession. He said, “Know that you are special. You have a special set of timeless values that must now be applied at a time when those values – and the joy in those values – are in question. It is your time. It is your challenge. It is your opportunity. Of you they will say, ‘He cares. He helps. And he improves where he goes. She cares. She helps. And she improves where she goes.’”

Caring for Patients and Colleagues

Caring, said Skeff, was part of the history and “marvelous mission” of GUSM, specifically “the care of the whole person.” He went on to detail why it matters so much today: “The care of the whole person! Sounds simplistic, yet this magnificent goal is one that has eluded many of us in medicine and medical education. And so we are rediscovering it today. We have discovered that we have developed a profession dedicated to and designed for a laudable goal – the understanding and treatment of disease but not necessarily the care of the whole person.”

Skeff encouraged the graduating medical students to extend this caring both to their colleagues and to their profession. He said, “We cannot accept the current level of burnout in physicians as evidence of adequate caring. We cannot accept the number of physicians who would tell their children not to become physicians, not to respond to this higher calling. We cannot accept the levels of depression in trainees as evidence of adequate caring. And the infusion of caring for these providers cannot simply be satisfied by a reduced workload. It must be satisfied by restoring full meaning into the work that we do.”

He continued, “So in the Georgetown manner of caring, we must begin to care for each other in a deeper way.” For example, he said, “Our educational programs, although well meaning, may still reward appearing better than your colleague who sits by you than rewarding the action of you making the colleague that sits by you better.”

Kelley Skeff recieved an honorary doctor of science degree during the commencement ceremony, conferred by Georgetown University President John DeGioia.
Lisa Helfert, Georgetown University

To conclude his address, Skeff shared an anecdote about a resident who began spending time at night after his shifts at the bedside of a young terminal patient. Their conversations were not about her disease but about who she was as a person. After his oncology rotation ended (and he learned the patient had passed), he found a letter from her in his office mailbox. It thanked him for the companionship he’d offered at a time when so many people were finding it hard to be with her… as a person who was dying.

Skeff said that’s the moment this particular resident became a doctor, when he cared about the whole person, “manifest[ing] the true values of our profession to a patient.” That, said Skeff, is “what a Georgetown graduate has to offer the current world.”

A Lifelong Mentor

Skeff is co-director (and co-founder) of the Stanford Faculty Development Center (SFDC) for Medical Teachers and the George DeForest Barnett Professor. He earned his MD at the University of Colorado Medical School and has been at Stanford since 1976 when he began a residency in internal medicine. He received his PhD from Stanford School of Education in 1981 and shortly thereafter began the SFDC with colleague Georgette Stratos.

During his career, says Healton, Skeff “has mentored hundreds of faculty from nearly every one of the 141 American medical schools” and “received nearly every national award available for exceptional educators.” These include the Distinguished Medical Educator Award from the APDIM, the Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education from AAMC and an award from career achievement in medical education from the Society of General Internal Medicine. In 2003 he was named a McCann Scholar, a national award recognizing the contribution of mentors.

Skeff and Stratos recently celebrated 30 years of teaching teachers.