Q&A with Dr. David Aronoff, the new Chair of the Department of Medicine
Hannah Calkins Feb 01, 2022
David Aronoff, MD, MD, FIDSA, FAAM, became Chair of the Department of Medicine on January 3. Read on to learn about why he’s excited to be in Indiana, his priorities as chair, and how he spends his time outside work.
Dr. Aronoff, you are a proud Hoosier who has spent your career elsewhere, most recently at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. What drew you back home?
For my family and me, this felt very much like the right opportunity for growth at the right time. During my time as the Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at VUMC, and particularly leading that division through the pandemic, I increasingly recognized the importance of a Department of Medicine in effecting positive change when it comes to population health; addressing health inequities; educating and preparing our workforce; and making impactful discoveries.
To be able to grow as a leader and help move a department forward as we are still in the middle of a pandemic is certainly a challenge. But to take on that challenge in my home state—at an institution that is deeply ingrained in who I am—is beyond words in terms of how special of an opportunity this is for me and my partner Kelly. She is from Indianapolis, and we met in Bloomington, and for her it’s also incredibly special and we’re excited to be moving back.
How are you spending your first days on the job?
I am spending a lot of time meeting people, learning about processes, and trying to understand all the different components of medicine at IU School of Medicine and IU Health. I have to say that so far, each day at work has felt like my first day at work! Everyday I’m meeting new people; I’m learning more about existing communities within and outside the department; and I’m developing what I might call neural connections about how all these different people processes and parts fit together in one enterprise.
What are your priorities as Chair of the Department of Medicine? How do you hope to shape and transform the department?
The fundamental structure of the department is one of a series of divisions that are nested within the department. One basic function of the department is to help divisions succeed. But the department also exists in a highly matrixed environment, where we have other departments and institutes and centers, in addition to a medical school and a health system, and all these entities need to work together to accomplish shared goals. I want the Department of Medicine to be firing on all cylinders and helping people succeed in accomplishing personal and shared goals. I want to do that in a way that fosters improvement, innovation, and the creation of new ways of understanding how we can improve human health.
This is a very exciting time for the Department of Medicine. We have big challenges that we need to meet head on, and we are very well-poised to address these important challenges in human health through clinical care, education and discovery.
Our faculty are on the front lines of the COVID pandemic in both clinical care and research. How will you help lead them through the remainder of the pandemic?
The pandemic has created a tectonic disruption to normal operations in health care, education and research, and I am highly aware of how much stress this pandemic is creating in all corners of the department for our staff, faculty and learners. I am very grateful for how much work people are doing to help us move forward through this challenging time.
As a leader, I need to listen to the concerns of members of our department; I need to understand that processes may not be operating as “as usual”; and I need to foster an environment where people are both willing to ask for help when they need assistance and to provide assistance to other members their community who are struggling.
We will absolutely get through this pandemic, and coming out of it, we need to take a close look at those adaptations that have helped with our sense of wellbeing and our ability to function at a high level, while under great stress—for example, being able to do some work from home and having more hybrid schedules. We also need to prepare for the next time something like this happens. Lots of work needs to be done in terms of wellness, engagement and developing resilience in the face of future disruptions.
You have said that the department must play a leading role in dismantling systemic racism; improving diversity of the health care workforce, faculty and trainees; and addressing health disparities. Please expand on this and share how you plan to confront these issues.
These are all really big-ticket items. We are at a point in our history where we need to openly acknowledge and address injustices that are contributing to illness and striking health inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the tragedies that can result from inequitable access to basic health care. Now, more than ever, we need to improve how we provide preventive and therapeutic care to members of our community who have been marginalized, oppressed or stigmatized. This will require active work.
We also need to diversify our workforce (in all aspects of medicine, including education, research and clinical care). Part of how we are going to do that is to improve the processes we are using for recruitment and retention in our trainees, faculty and staff. We must address unconscious biases in ourselves and understand how our biases have informed our processes and procedures. Our capacity to improve requires that we work to understand how discrimination, racism and other forms of bigotry can exist around us and within us without our recognizing or acknowledging it.
These things will change as we continue to have open discussions; pursue opportunities for learning and engagement; and work not just within the department, but across the entire enterprise to address these barriers to improving the human condition.
You are a music enthusiast and drummer. Is there a relationship between medicine and your interest in music? In other words, how does your musical practice inform your medical one (if it does)?
Creativity and art in all of its forms are uniquely important to humans. When people are working in creative ways, outside of their “day job,” that can serve multiple purposes. Engaging in art can be a source of stress reduction. It can also help recenter people and put them in a more creative mindset.
I am not sure why I like music so much, but it has always been a very important part of my life. It helps me connect with other people, and there’s something about engaging in that particular art form that I find quite therapeutic. Others have similar experiences with dance, or writing, or painting, or reading, or doing yoga, or meditating.
Music has a way of helping me stay centered and feel connected. And art is one of those activities that can really bring people together independently of traditional barriers to engagement. It can be one of those great shared joys for humanity and I think that’s really special.
Also, there is a growing discipline of appreciating the impact of art on healing, and people using different forms of art in rehabilitation from illness. I think that is telling us something important about art.
You’re also active on Twitter @DMAronoff. Why is social media valuable to you?
I learn a tremendous amount by engaging with social media. I’m exposed to a lot of different ideas there, and I discover things in health care, science, and entertainment that would have been much harder to find in the absence of social media.
Social media, like any form of engaging with other people, can be positive, and it can also have negative consequences. For me, it’s important that I periodically take breaks from it, and I try to avoid engagements in social media that are likely to be harmful to me or others. But I’ve really learned a lot and developed some excellent relationships with other people in health care and in music through social media.
What do you want faculty, staff and learners in the department to know about you?
I want people to know that I care about them, and I am deeply committed to the success of this department. And, that our youngest child has just committed to Indiana University for college! That news is fresh off the presses.