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Career Spotlight: Kierstin Cates Kennedy

Written by: Dr. Kierstin Cates Kennedy
Published on: Sep 21, 2022

Kierstin Cates Kennedy
Kierstin Cates Kennedy, MD, MSHA, FACP, SFHM. Photo credit: Melissa Denae

This is the latest in a series of interviews with hospital medicine clinicians connected to the Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM) to share insights, knowledge, and expertise about career opportunities, growth, and development. Today we hear from Kierstin Cates Kennedy, MD, MSHA, FACP, SFHM.

Dr. Kennedy is a clinical associate professor and the chief medical officer at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Medicine and UAB Hospital. She earned her medical degree and completed an internship and residency in internal medicine-pediatrics at UAB. She also completed a Master of Science in Health Administration degree and the National Quality Scholars Fellowship at the Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center. Dr. Kennedy previously served as the medical director of the Compliant Documentation Management Program where she collaborated with the Compliant Documentation Management Professional (CDMP) nurses to streamline the medical documentation query process. She has also served as UAB’s inaugural director of quality for the hospital medicine program and inaugural chief of hospital medicine.

1. What made you decide to choose hospital medicine as a career path, and specifically your specialty?

During residency, I found that I really enjoyed inpatient care more than clinic. I like dealing with higher-acuity patients and enjoy the challenge of having to very quickly get to know a patient and build rapport so I can provide them with the best possible care. I’ve also always enjoyed performing procedures, so the inpatient setting provided the best opportunity for me to be able to check all those boxes.

2. What does a typical workday look like for you?

As a clinician, my day can vary depending on the type of shift (i.e., caring for patients on a dedicated unit, performing procedures all day, admitting, etc.) but clinical care now represents only 20% of my job, so the bulk of my day is spent doing administrative work as chief medical officer. In my role as CMO, I’m thinking about the challenges in care delivery and finding ways to organize us so we make improvements that will result in greater efficiency and better outcomes for our patients.

3. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?

My greatest career success probably was finding ways to create the job I wanted, despite not having an example to follow at my institution. I achieved it by approaching my career the same way that I address my administrative work—focusing on continuous improvement. At every stage, I’d try to articulate the goal (for example finding a job as a hospitalist that was a split between clinical work and administrative time leading quality improvement initiatives) and when I didn’t reach the goal, I’d take a step back to reflect and try to determine what I might have been missing or what I needed to do differently. Then I’d try again.

In the example of trying to find a hospitalist job with dedicated time for quality improvement efforts, my first job search only yielded 100% clinical roles. So, I took a full-time clinician role while I tried to determine what it was an employer would need to see to be able to make that sort of investment in me. I determined it was likely more training and proof of outcomes, and that’s how I decided to apply for the VA Quality Scholars fellowship to get additional training in quality improvement and begin building a quality portfolio. At the end of the fellowship, I attempted the job search again and this time with much more favorable results, and ultimately landed the type of job I'd envisioned.

4. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

One of the greatest challenges for me has been trying to find my way in a space where I had inadequate mentorship and that didn't seem as though it was meant for me. I dealt with that by finding mentorship where I could. I couldn't find one person at my institution who was a career hospitalist, had a love for quality improvement and leadership, and could tell me exactly what step to take next to get to where they were. But I could build that person via several different people providing mentorship or coaching (depending on their bandwidth and interest).

So, I found the nurse with a love for quality improvement who could give me insight on how to advance my projects, the administrator with a love for leadership who could teach me how to engage stakeholders and make connections to move projects forward in the face of roadblocks, and the physician with the academic experience and career that I could model aspects of. I pulled all that together to help me blaze my own trail. As for feeling like these spaces weren't meant for me, I ultimately decided that "wherever I go, there I am" and I decided to stay focused on the work and the mission. These spaces still may not be meant for me but I'm here and I'm eager to do good work, and that energy seems to attract the right people so I can find community and belonging with other mission-driven people.

5. How did the global pandemic affect your day-to-day working life?

The pandemic made work life much busier, both from a clinical and administrative standpoint. People were stressed and changes were being made almost daily, so I really had to focus on becoming a more effective communicator. I was also forced to stretch as it pertains to clinical operations and maintaining high quality care during a crisis. It was a difficult time but I'm really thankful for all I’ve learned.

6. Where would you like to see your career path going next?

I'm not sure where I'd like to go next. I’ve never had aspirations for any title, and yet I’ve continued to find opportunities to grow professionally so I don't plan to change that now. Instead, my focus has always been on finding the type of work I can be passionate about, that makes care for patients better, and stretches me as a person and professional. Wherever the next job is that will allow me to do that is where I'd like to go next.

7. What membership benefits offered by the Society of Hospital Medicine have helped you in your career?

The networking, the QI resources, and the educational opportunities offered by SHM (both around clinical care and leadership development) have been invaluable to my professional growth.

8. Do you belong to any SHM SIGs (special interest groups), chapters, or committees? If so, which ones and why?

I belong to the Membership Committee and now serve on the Board of Directors.

9. What impact has SHM had in shaping your career?

SHM has been a major influence in my career path during the past eight years and it all started when I attended my first Leadership Academy. It opened my eyes to the value of really studying the field of leadership and the value of using that knowledge to develop others. I’ve leaned on that heavily in my leadership at work and it’s helped me and those around me to continue to grow and improve.

10. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new hospitalist just beginning their career?

Be comfortable with the idea that your first job may not be your forever job, but there is so much you can learn if you remain open to it. Also, begin investing in your own professional development early in your career. Not only will it make you more skilled at what you do, but it will also help you find greater joy and fulfillment in your work.

11. Is there a particular area of specialty medicine you enjoy working with, such as clinical care, teaching, or research? Why?

I enjoy all aspects of our tripartite mission, though I don't get to participate in them equally. I think they all feed into and off each other and I love building on that synergy.

12. Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?

My career trajectory has been relatively steep over a relatively short time and not because I’ve been laser-focused on getting to any one position. I follow the work I enjoy and that always seems to lead me to the right places.

Learn more about SHM and the benefits of membership.