Program Director Interviews, Match, Medical Students, MSIII, MSIV

Program Director Interview Series: Michael W. Van Meter, MD | EM Residency Program Director at McGovern Medical School, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, TX

This month’s interview for the Program Director Interview Series brings us down to Houston. We sat down to chat with Dr. Van Meter. We didn’t ask any hard-hitting questions about cowboy boots, but we learned a lot about residency at UTHealth.

What sets your program apart from others?

We are an amalgam of one-part university and one-part county, a true duality that has defined us for over a decade when we added our second “primary” site – LBJ General Hospital. Our first and University-based site is Memorial Hermann Hospital – TMC which is the flagship of one of the largest healthcare systems in Texas. This place defined the program from the earliest days 27 years ago, and remains an important part of our identity. It’s the busiest Level 1 Trauma center in North America, and that acuity is not isolated to trauma with a general admission rate on the order of 3x the national average. Meanwhile LBJ brings its own opportunities– it has been the highest volume ED in the city since Hurricane Harvey and functions as a vital critical access hospital in the poorest zip code in Harris County. It is literally the only hospital in that quadrant of H-town. It’s certainly one of the reasons I signed on as faculty in 2010, and one of the reasons I’ve stayed. With those remarkable patient populations, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside a brilliant, wonderfully warm, and thoroughly supportive group of faculty who deliberately invest in each other’s education, wellness, diversity, and ambition. Our residents are like the faculty in these ways. So it’s people who set us apart. Those we take care of and those we work alongside.

What are the benefits of attending a 3 vs. 4 year EM residency program?

First, go with your gut regardless of the training length. If you love the program it’ll work out; you can find exceptional training and experience in both formats. Layer in your post-residency goals and think about your personal growth curve. For example, if you KNOW you are going to do a fellowship before you start, it might make sense to do a 3-year program because you are headed towards additional training. If you are committed to an academic path, you can do this out of either a 3 or 4 year program, though depending on where you want to end up you might be considered better off coming straight out of a 4 year program. However that is dependent on the individual, a proactive quick starter that does extracurricular work early in training, networks, and demonstrates academic potential and leadership throughout a 3 year program is great. If you need time to find yourself, like me, a 4 year will definitely provide more room to maneuver and evolve, but is no less perfect for the quick starter. We have faculty from both training backgrounds and they are both categorically awesome. For those that know they are destined for community/private-practice, the 4th year has been referred to as, “the 6-figure mistake.” I have a number of friends who made this “mistake,” and don’t view it that way. Again, you should go where you envision being fulfilled, challenged, supported, and happiest regardless of training length.

What is something students may not know about your program?

Our practice and identity is informed by the commitment and sacrifice of many who have worked to develop strengths that include Medical Education, Quality Assurance, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Ultrasound, EMS/Disaster Medicine, and Research amongst other highlights. We are a blue-collar worker with an academic mindset and commitment to the most vulnerable and marginalized of society. That has always been there, but we are now also finding our voice in ways that reflect our actions.

What range of USMLE/COMLEX Step 1 scores do you look for in an applicant for the program?

We do not have strict cut-offs, but do recognize the predictive value of these standardized tests when it comes to passing your boards. If the only low point on an application is the Step 1 score, you’re still in the running but we’d like to see Step 2 sooner rather than later.

What kinds of opportunities for research exist? Do you look for residency candidates with research experience?

The opportunities for research have exploded in the past 3 or 4 years with our Research Division expanding in staff, faculty, and funding. The opportunities for mentorship are top tier. We do look for residency candidates with research experience, but only if they are interested in putting in the sweat equity it takes to be a great clinician as well. Our training environment and credo is geared for those looking to be a physician scientist, not the other way around.

Do you have opportunities to explore global health at your institution?

We do have opportunities, though it would be disingenuous to say it’s as simple as flipping a switch. The program has faculty that mentor/guide our residents through the institutional and international obstacles that exist, and with a proactive approach you can have a wonderful experience utilizing your elective time. Most recently, we had a resident completing their global health elective in Peru. Unfortunately, springtime electives to Peru and the Philippines were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully it is safe to travel again soon, because we anticipate facilitating more resident global health electives including research in Ecuador and community health in Uganda.

What are some qualities that your program looks for in applicants?

Gratitude for the opportunity, Respect for all, Integrity, and Tenacity (GRIT). We want you to join our program if you are willing to sacrifice something of yourself to become excellent as well as challenge and support those around you to do the same. We want you to join our program if you want to become the best Emergency Medicine physician you can, which requires us both to be invested in your personal and professional growth.

Can you describe any attributes and qualities that make applicants stand out?

Other than what I just mentioned, we look for a mix of solid academic track record, a proactive, goal-oriented approach, and emotional intelligence. On that foundation, we like to see evidence of niche development regardless of what that path looks like – education, advocacy, service, policy, research….. we want to find ways to partner with you on what you are passionate about.

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