Richard Obenour, MD, retired Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine (DOM), was recently named Profesor Emeritus, marking a career that started just after Watson and Crick unraveled the DNA double helix and followed the still accelerating trajectory of the information explosion in the medical sciences.
After receiving his medical degree from the University of Tennessee, he completed an internship at the historic Knoxville General Hospital during its last year of existence. He started his residency in 1956 when the doors opened at the newly constructed University of Tennessee Memorial Research Center and Hospital (UTMRCH). He admitted the very first medical patient to the new facility, a man transferred from the old hospital in a hearse.
Dr. Obenour’s training was interrupted when he was drafted into the Navy. After two years, he returned to Knoxville to finish his resident year before moving to Duke University to complete his internal medicine training and start a cardiovascular research fellowship. When the equipment needed to start his research project did not materialize, he accepted an opportunity to study the effects of altered surfactant on the mechanics of breathing. His career in pulmonary medicine was born. In 1962, he came home to practice as the only nonsurgical lung specialist in this region. After six years of solo practice, he brought in his first associate, and over time, the practice grew into the Knoxville Pulmonary Group, precursor to University Pulmonary and Critical Care. In 1973, he became the first pulmonary division chief at the medical center, a post he held until 2004.
In 1992, Dr. Al Beasley, then Chair of the DOM, asked him to be his Vice Chief. One of his several accomplishments in that role included the establishment of the Quality Assurance Program.
Dr. Obenour recognized early the need for interdepartmental communication and incorporated other departments into the process to study outcomes that are now benchmarks of treatment for pneumonia and other illnesses. He also developed a physician credentialing system that with some modifications is in general usage today. In the course of his career, he has served on more than 66 committees and chaired 9 of them. He has served as interim chair of the DOM twice.
His career has been a journey of discovery and change. He saw the transition from the x-ray hanging on a view box to the CT scan delivered to his office computer, from treatments aimed at relieving symptoms to disease modifying drugs chosen to target a specific genetic mutation. He has seen a clipboard of vital signs evolve into the electronic medical record.
During all this change, his most important observation occurred during his early years at Duke, when his chairman, frustrated with a student’s long-winded and somewhat inept case presentation said, "Tell me what you are going to do for the patient." Dr. Obenour made that his philosophy, and it has never changed. It is his advice to doctors who may expect to face therapeutic and diagnostic decisions that are hidden in clouds of information. "Always ask what you can do for the patient.”
Posted May 21, 2015
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