Everyday remarkable: behind the scenes with medical program assistant senior David Smith

David Smith

Keeping track of minutiae and specifics is a passion of David Smith, Medical Program Assistant Senior in the Division of Hematology, Medical Oncology and Palliative Care. In his role, there are many particulars to juggle: Smith provides administrative support to nine faculty physicians, five advanced practice providers, and the university’s National Institutes of Health hematology research T32 training program. For a medical program assistant (MPA), it’s all in a day’s work.

“Somebody's got to be in charge of the details, and that's where we come in,” said Smith.

He joined the department in 2013 after a career spanning almost 30 years in the paper industry. His responsibilities over that timespan included manufacturing operations, safety audits, OSHA trainings, human resources support, and writing hundreds of standard operating procedures.

Smith’s family inspired and encouraged him to shift into the field of medical administration. His mother was devoted to her career as a geriatrics nurse, working from the age of 18 until her retirement at the age of 81. “I asked her why she didn’t want to retire sooner, and she said it was because of her love of helping people as a nurse. Because of her, I always kind of had this thing about getting into the medical field somehow,” said Smith.

His eldest daughter, who had been an MPA for the UW pediatric cardiology program, encouraged Smith to take the state civil service exam and consider applying for an MPA position. “The rest is history,” he said.

Smith shared that he loves the technical aspects of his role. His days are filled with computer work as he manages non-clinical schedules, makes travel arrangements to scientific conferences, keeps track of publications and career trajectories of researchers whose training was supported by the T32 grant, submits reimbursements, facilitates interviews and visits by prospective faculty members, and keeps the providers he supports on track to meet a myriad of deadlines.

“Technology fascinates me. My way of thinking is that you should never stop learning. I didn't start college until I was 50 years old. I pursued my degree online, so I really had to learn how to use a computer. It's been very helpful in some of the jobs that I've had along the way,” he said.

His dedication to hematology research and clinical care took a personal turn approximately three years ago, when his grandson was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). “That was tough,” said Smith. “I was glad I was working here when he was diagnosed, because I was able to talk with some of our doctors about it.”

Smith’s grandson is now six years old and is on track to finish his treatment protocol in the spring. “The good news is that children have a 95 percent cure rate for B cell ALL. Knowing that took a lot of stress off of me,” said Smith.

As one of many MPAs throughout the Department of Medicine, Smith emphasizes that each MPA position is relatively unique because tasks are tailored to the needs of faculty and advanced practice providers. While all MPAs have faculty members assigned to them, for example, some will provide support for division projects and events, some coordinate fellowship programs, some serve as coordinators for division Grand Rounds series, and many will help with tasks such as purchasing, reimbursements, and travel. In general, MPAs take on a variety of practical, administrative tasks designed to help faculty members manage their clinical, research and teaching responsibilities.

He advises a combination of persistence, openness, and tenacity. “You have to be able to multi-task, and to not be afraid to – well, to nag your doctor. You have to be aggressive without being overly aggressive in order to get things done on a timely basis. Don't be a procrastinator, because that gets you into trouble. And definitely be open to learning,” he said.

In the end, it’s the details that move patient care and health initiatives forward, which Smith finds immensely satisfying. “I take great pride in what I do,” he said, explaining how facilitating travel of his physicians between institutions and to oncology meetings can help bring new clinical trials to UW.

“It's very satisfying knowing that I am a small part of that....It helps me believe that I'm a small part of maybe finding a cure someday.”

Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in our Everyday Remarkable series, which tells the stories of staff members within the Department of Medicine. Nearly 350 staff members on our team are dedicated to educating the next generation of physicians, advancing health, facilitating and conducting life-changing research, and ensuring the smooth operation of the largest academic department in the UW System. We’ll go behind the scenes with staff to give Vital Signs readers a glimpse into the roles, responsibilities, challenges, and joys that they encounter every day. Have a suggestion for a person or job that you think we should cover? Contact us.