Elise Desperito, MD, Named Vice Chair of Education

Elise Desperito, MD
Dr. Elise Desperito, assistant professor of radiology and vice chair of education.

The Department of Radiology is pleased to announce Dr. Elise Desperito's appointment as vice chair of education. This new position brings Dr. Desperito's extensive experience and expertise as an educator to a department-wide level.

Dr. Desperito, assistant professor of radiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and chief of the Division of Breast Imaging, will work closely with the resident and fellowship program directors to implement new curriculum and workshops and promote an educational culture at Columbia Radiology that focuses on physician wellbeing. "I'm excited to work with my colleagues in education," said Dr. Desperito. "We have a dedicated and collaborative team, and I know I will learn as much from them as they will learn from me."

Dr. Desperito joined the department in 2005. She served as the program director for the Diagnostic Radiology Residency from 2016 to 2021. She was the recipient of the 2020 Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award and was selected as a member of Academy of Clinical Excellence, also in 2020. 

Q & A With Dr. Desperito

What role will you play in the department as vice chair of education?

My first priority is to make sure every resident and fellow is an excellent radiologist when they graduate. To me, though, physician education is so much more. There is a Latin phrase, cura personalis, that translates as “care for the entire person.” Cura personalis is having concern and care for the personal development of the whole person. This is what I hope to do in my position as vice chair.

There is so much pressure on young physicians.  Residents work long and difficult hours; they need to learn a tremendous amount of information; they need to perform at a very high level every day. I want to help make this process more humane. The stress of our work and the amount of work we need to do every day can feel dehumanizing.  So we must be intentional about maintaining and valuing the humanity of the physician.

To me, valuing a physician’s humanity is about understanding what drives someone, what inspires them, what gives them fulfillment. Each resident and fellow will graduate as a radiologist, but each person is uniquely inspired. It may be doing research or international  work, learning how to become an educator or gaining leadership skills, or a combination of all of these.

In some ways, it's so simple. It's getting to know people. And then understanding how I can facilitate other people's successes and help them develop. That's how I see this position.

Do you have specific projects you'd like to implement?

On a grass roots level, I want to find ways to acknowledge people's successes and build community so that we can get to know each other.

And then on a bigger level, I'm excited to develop new curriculum and effective workshops on leadership and management, which we don't normally get as part of medical school or residency education. Learning how to manage a team, how to negotiate conflict, how to run an effective meeting, how to inspire productivity in the people you work with are all crucially important skills. I believe we're all leaders. It's just a matter of developing those skills.

Finally, I'm excited to reestablish our international global health work which many of our residents participated in the past.

What's your approach to leadership?

One thing I've learned as I've had different positions of leadership is that listening is the most important skill. So as vice chair of education my job is to teach, yes, but my big job is to listen.

What are some issues or concerns you've noticed in resident and fellow education that you'd like to address as vice chair?

I think in some ways physicians are silenced.  HIPAA rules are strict, and we're taught early in medical school that a patient’s privacy is paramount. We think about the story as the patient's story. But the story is also the physician's story—the story of our relationship with that patient and how that affects us. As physicians, we witness sickness and death all the time. And somehow, just by going through four years of medical school, we're supposed to be able to handle all that. So how do you metabolize those experiences? The whole idea around physicians' stories is very interesting to me.

Another issue I'd like to continue to address is the unhelpful focus on perfectionism and the shame and guilt around making mistakes. In medicine, the stakes are very high because a mistake could cost someone's life. Residency is long and difficult, because it takes years to achieve the degree of precision and excellence that is needed. In a training program, we have heirarchy and oversight and mentorship so that we ensure the safety of the patient. I tell the residents to take the hardest case, read as many cases as they can, and make the mistakes now when someone senior is reading every case. That is how we grow as physicians and ultimately achieve a high level of performance. The culture of, “if you get it right, you're smart, and if you get it wrong, you're not smart” permeates so much of our education system. That's an extremely difficult culture to change in medicine. I'd like to try to build a culture of intellectual curiosity, take out the shame and the guilt, and have it be exciting.

How has COVID-19 changed resident and fellow education?

I think COVID has really highlighted the importance of community. The solitariness of life can be very dystopic, and radiology can be a solitary profession. But it doesn't have to be. There are lots of ways to create community, with referring physicians, with colleagues, and with trainees. So the question we'll need to answer is how do we build that back and build it back better.