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Fresh eyes on ophthalmology

BY Grant Welker

8/27/2018
Photo/Courtesy
Photo/Courtesy
Dr. Shlomit Schaal

In just two years’ time as the department chair of ophthalmology at UMass Memorial Medical Center, Dr. Shlomit Schaal has done about as much as a medical chair might hope to accomplish during a career. What was a small and inefficient department when Schaal, who is originally from Israel, started in July 2016 has blossomed into an operation in three locations, with two optometrists — it had none when she started — and for the first time an ability to perform eye surgery for children in Worcester.
How have you changed the ophthalmology department since your arrival?
We started by instituting a lean management strategy. For the first two months, I just observed the way things were operating. People were waiting an average of 74 minutes to see a physician, and an average of five months to see a doctor if they didn’t have an emergency. It’s not that I come in as a department chair and tell people what to do. I have a view from the top, but I’m not there at the front line. We want to change it from the front line, and it’s my job to make that happen. We’re now just a five-minute wait on average.
Services have been greatly expanded since?
We’ve opened a eye screening clinic at UMass’ University Campus, where we have a diabetes center so that patients can be screened by eye doctors while they’re in one spot. We opened a clinic across from Northborough Crossing in May, which we call an open-access clinic. People can walk in without an appointment and be seen that day. We have about 100 patients every month at all of our locations.
You have also added an academic component for the first time?
We’re now doing cutting-edge research. We hired a new clinical scientist who is world renown, Dr. Johanna Seddon, as the director of our Macular Degeneration Center of Excellence. It’s amazing that she joined us. She’s so famous. Everyone in the retina field, over the entire world, knows her.
You are hoping to expand into a residency program as well?
We had no formal education program when I started, so very few students came to UMass Medical School to study it. We have very smart and capable students but it was such a shame that we couldn’t train them. We’ve submitted an application for our own residency program. We’re very much excited about that as well.
How did you take on this challenge? Was it daunting at first?
I was the director of retina surgery at the University of Louisville before coming here, and it was a very well established program. I was happy there and not looking for a job. But in ophthalmology, about 98 percent of department chairs are men. My chair in Louisville encouraged me to go to a seminar, where we heard about shortages in female leadership and encouraged us to apply for openings. I came from the seminar all hyped up, but I never thought I’d get the job. Never. My husband and I talked about Massachusetts, with the harsh, long winters and the tough drivers. But I had to do it. I have four daughters. I wanted to set an example. I can tell you this was one of the luckiest decisions that I’ve made. It’s a huge challenge, and it’s really exciting to see the changes.
What is left that you hope to accomplish?
I’m very much looking forward to starting a residency program. And there’s always an opportunity to expand further than what we have, with more physicians, and to bring in more donors to help with research. There’s no shortage of things that we need to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed by WBJ News Editor Grant Welker.