UTHSCT’s Richard Viken, MD, shares his passion for patient care by training new doctors for East Texas

Thursday, March 26, 2009

For Richard Viken, MD, it’s all about patient care: helping sick people heal. That’s his passion.

“Taking care of patients is what I went to school for. That’s what most physicians should do. Everything always circles back to patient care. You can learn something from almost every patient,” said Dr. Viken, who is a professor of family medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.

For the past 21 years, Dr. Viken has practiced family medicine at UTHSCT.

“I’ve seen some of the same patients for all of that time. It’s nice to see the changes they go through over the years,” he said.

Dr. Viken also is committed to training new family medicine physicians for East Texas and beyond.

He oversaw UTHSCT’s Family Medicine Residency Program for 15 years and was chair of the Department of Family Medicine for 16 years.

Seven physicians are admitted to the program each year, so that 21 residents are in the program at any one time. Graduates of UTHSCT’s Family Medicine Residency Program practice in 47 Texas cities, including East Texas cities such as Longview, Gilmer, Gladewater, Henderson, Lindale, Overton, and Tyler.

While primary care and family medicine doctors are the backbone of health care in the United States, they are in short supply in many areas of the nation.

The American Medical Association is predicting a shortage of up to 44,000 primary-care physicians by 2025.

Only 25 percent of Texas counties in 2004 had enough primary care doctors to serve their populations, while 24 Texas counties were without any primary care or family medicine doctors at all.

Dr. Viken joined UTHSCT in 1987, in the third year of the residency program. Since it began, the program has graduated 125 physicians.

Of those, 101 doctors have stayed in Texas, and 60 percent have made East Texas their home.

“I came here the year that the first class of residents graduated. What’s pleased me the most through the years has been to grow the program kind of like you would a child, from a fairly unruly toddler to a young, mature adult,” he said.

Dr. Viken recently handed over his administrative duties to UTHSCT’s Jonathan MacClements, MD – a family medicine doctor who completed his residency at the Health Science Center under Dr. Viken’s leadership.

Now, Dr. Viken can spend more time mentoring new physicians and training the doctors who will provide primary care to families throughout Texas.

“The trick of teaching is to stay one page ahead of the learner. Young physicians have a lot of book knowledge. I can offer a little bit of experience. It’s also a lot of fun to learn from them,” Dr. Viken said.

He takes his cue from a quote by actor Kevin Spacey: “If you have done well in this business, it is your obligation to spend an enormous amount of time sending the elevator back down.”

Dr. Viken enjoys seeing new physicians gain insight about a diagnosis or patient.

“Suddenly they figure it out. They realize what they’re telling me,” he said.

“Young doctors now are very technologically oriented. The new electronic devices help them access the large amount of medical data out there. The trick is to know how and when to use this information, to apply it in the appropriate setting,” he said.

The most important thing Dr. Viken has learned during his decades of service is to be a good listener.

“There’s some truth in the old saying that if you listen long enough, the patient will tell you the diagnosis,” he said.

Listening is also important when working with the residents or your colleagues, Dr. Viken said.

“Two things make you successful. Surround yourself with good people and turn them loose. I think the best leaders are essentially invisible,” he said.

For 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatments, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. With an operating budget of more than $125 million and biomedical research funding that exceeds $12 million annually, UTHSCT has a major economic impact on East Texas. Its two medical residency programs – in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities in East Texas and beyond.

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