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My protégé, my physician

MU professors choose former students as their doctors

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Feb. 15, 2011
My protege, my physician

When Emily Coberly opened her medical practice at University Hospital's Fairview Clinic, her former professor, Karen Bennett, became Coberly's first patient. Bennett is among many Mizzou faculty members who turn to former students for medical care.

Professor-student relationships change with the conferring of degrees, and sometimes former students then become the advisers.

In the fields of science and medicine, test scores and awards are good indicators our students are well trained, professor Karen Bennett says. But the defining moment comes when “we have enough confidence in them to select them for our personal doctors.”

Without hesitation, Bennett asked to be Emily (Gressman) Coberly’s first patient as the new physician — one of Bennett’s former students — opened her practice at University Hospital’s Fairview Clinic.

When Professor Michael Hosokawa became concerned about some suspicious spots on his face, he sought care from a local dermatologist he trusted — one of his former students at MU’s School of Medicine.

And after learning that his primary care physician — a former student — was moving, associate professor emeritus Ted Groshong transferred his care to another former student.

Brought up from the bench

Bennett had strong reasons for selecting Coberly, a specialist in internal medicine, as her primary-care physician. She knew Coberly well after mentoring her for three years of undergraduate laboratory work in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in the MU School of Medicine.

“When you see students in a long-term situation, you judge their abilities and personalities. I know how good she was at the bench,” Bennett says.

Beginning as a sophomore in an eight-week Undergraduate Research mentorship, Coberly worked meticulously to chemically mutate millions of microscopic worms in a project that brought her co-authorship of a research paper that was well-received internationally. 

Coberly considers the request to provide medical care for her former teacher “the greatest compliment someone can give a physician.” There’s no awkwardness in the new relationship either; they’re both grown-ups now.

As a professor, Bennett added socializing to the mentoring by inviting students into her home for what they considered fancy dinners; Coberly describes the meals as “appetizers and all.” In hosting her students, Bennett demonstrated how to mix a scientific career with a personal life.

“She was an inspiration to me,” Coberly says.

Dr. Coberly paid attention to the life lessons and now balances medicine with her own family. She is the mother of three boys — 8 years, 5 years and 18 months — and her husband is in medical school.

Professor patients

“Jon Dyer was a model student who became a model doctor,” Hosokawa says of his choice for dermatologist. He was relieved when Dyer examined the marks on his face and called them “wisdom spots.”

Hosokawa was particularly impressed with Dyer’s intellectual curiosity as a student and still considers him “one of the brightest medical students I have encountered.” In the early 1990s, Hosokawa was associate dean of curriculum in MU’s School of Medicine and one of 12 faculty facilitators who directed the students’ study.

At that time, the medical school had just transitioned from a text-based style of teaching to a new curriculum called Problems Based Learning, which teaches students around patient care rather than rote memorization of facts. Students work on one authentic case each week, researching the facts and teaching each other.

“PBL is an effective method to teach doctors. It puts the students in the situation of being a doctor, asking questions and problem solving as they go through cases, proposing patient management and thinking like doctors,” Hosokawa says.

Dyer enjoyed the new active style of learning, which seemed more useful than sitting through a full day of lectures, followed by additional memorizing at home. 

“I liked the idea of using a more realistic problem as a springboard for learning. It makes the information much easier to pick up and more useful to us once we've learned it. I appreciated the freedom to learn on my own time, in my own way,” Dyer says. 

As MU students progressed through the system, the school’s scores for United States Medical Licensing Examinations began to rise above national averages. Soon, administrators learned that MU students entering residences had higher skills in problem solving and patient care than graduates of standard curricula.

For his part, Dyer says he’s honored to be consulted by former teachers, who had access to all of his data. “I figure they are as informed as they can be when choosing a physician.”

Doctor, doctor

Groshong, a former associate dean for medical education, had to change doctors when his primary care physician moved his practice to Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. Groshong previously saw Richard Burns, an internal medicine specialist.

Recommendations from medical colleagues led Groshong to James Koller, who specializes in general internal medicine. “I thought it to be great: exchange one former student as a doctor for another,” Groshong says. 

Although he’s a subspecialist in nephrology, Groshong strongly believes the best care is performed by a primary care physician, and he practices what he preaches.

“Dr. Koller can send me to a subspecialist if he thinks it is indicated; however, it rarely is.  He is an excellent physician, and that allows me to be the patient and he the doctor,” Groshong says.

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Reader feedback

  • I was pleased but not surprised at the article featuring Dr. Coberly. She has been my primary care physician for several years, and I absolutely could not ask for a more thorough physician. The residents who work with her are very fortunate.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012