Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez's Path to Leadership
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Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez's Path to Leadership

Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, MD is the Medical Director of the Brain Injury and Stroke Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann and Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Vice Chair of Quality and Patient Safety at McGovern Medical School at UT Health Science Center at Houston. Discover Monica's path to PM&R and academic leadership.

In medical school, Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez’s plan was to become a pediatrician and return to her hometown, McAllen, Texas, to treat local children. However, her plans changed when she took a pre-clinical elective course in sports medicine – taught by a physiatrist.

“I had no idea what physical medicine was. I had always liked sports and been involved in athletics. So I had an interest in sports medicine. But when I did the elective, I was introduced to the PM&R faculty. There was an adaptive sports lecture on treating patients with injuries to participate in sports,” she recalls. The nature of the work — working with patients throughout the cycle of their treatment and rehabilitation, and the mix of challenging cases — intrigued her.

Monica later completed a two-week rotation that included a mix of inpatient and outpatient clinical work in rehab.

“I found that you could follow patients with strokes throughout their stay in the system. You could build a great relationship with your patients and their families too,” she says. “In the outpatient setting, you could see patients getting better, and people wanting to get better, and touching people’s lives at the most vulnerable, intense point.”

Hands-On Medicine

She found that physiatry blended her interests in rheumatology, orthopedics, neurology, treating the musculoskeletal system, and what she calls “hands-on medicine.” Embarking on a career in academic PM&R, she was also impressed by the low levels of burnout she saw among experienced physiatrists.

There is a good work/life balance in PM&R. The physicians I met seemed happy. There are not many midnight emergencies,” she says. She is the Fellowship Director of a brain injury program in Houston, and also works with young residents daily. “I think, as much as possible from the beginning, I have played up PM&R as a great field. There are just so many things you can do.”

Medicine is a calling to help people, and physiatry is the ideal place to do just that, says Monica.

“We meet our patients at what may be the worst point in their lives, and we help them to get better. We help them improve their lives. Some doctors may save lives, but I restore lifestyles,” she says. Her patients want to regain some measure of independence and quality of life, and rehabilitation helps them do that. “Our specialty is very hands-on as well. A great deal of our prescriptions for our patients is exercise. You need to do this exercise program to get better.”

Physiatry allows a doctor to create his or her own niche, building diverse careers that are professionally and intellectually stimulating.

Physicians who enjoy procedural work will also find that in PM&R, including treatments like limb injections. She specializes in brain injury, stroke rehabilitation and spasticity management. Her clinical research work includes some quality-improvement trials and other projects as well.

Leadership Opportunities

Monica also takes time to stay actively involved in the Association of Academic Physiatrists and to attend medical conferences.

“To me, volunteering in my specialty is very important. It keeps me up-to-date and involved at the forefront of my specialty,” she says. “If you take on leadership roles, you set yourself up to be a leader. In PM&R, working with a team is one of the greatest benefits. I work with neuropsychologists, physical therapists, nurses. You become a leader of your team, and the work itself just lends itself to being a leader.”

Physicians in the U.S are adapting to a new reimbursement landscape that emphasizes the value and quality of treatment interventions of all types. Through her leadership roles, Monica wants to do more to promote the tremendous value of physical medicine.

“Medicine is evolving. We must work together to have the best patient outcomes and better quality of life for our patients. There is a great opportunity for all of us in PM&R to take on a leadership role in medicine.”