Spring 2016

Her Rush education taught her to be open and inquisitive. Today she uses this simple question to make transformational changes in care and education.

By Anna Seifert

Born and raised in a small Illinois town, Julie Freischlag, MD ’80, knows for certain that where she came from helped her get to where she is now.
“In the Midwest, and at Rush, there’s a sense of openness you develop toward other people or ideas,” said Freischlag, now vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. “As I’ve worked in different systems across the country, it’s undoubtedly been an advantage. You’re comfortable asking questions and confronting your peers — and sometimes your bosses.”
Freischlag, a board-certified vascular surgeon, currently oversees UC Davis Health System’s academic, research and clinical programs, including the School of Medicine, the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, a 1,000-member physician practice group and UC Davis Medical Center. And it’s no secret her passion for academic medicine was first sparked at Rush.
“Tom Witt was my biggest mentor at Rush — a great surgeon and resident, always open to ideas, encouraging me that I could do it and never doubting my role as a woman,” said Freischlag, who previously served 11 years as Johns Hopkins Medical Institute’s first-ever female chief of surgery.
“Rush continues to have incredible clinical teaching for their students with hands-on experience and the opportunity to participate in the care of patients,” she said. “That’s really what turned my head and showed me the best way to teach.”
Julie Freischlag with colleague Katherine Rauen

Julie Freischlag, MD ‘80 (right, with UC Davis genomics specialist Katherine Rauen, MD, PhD), credits her Rush education with laying the groundwork for her career.

The ‘why’ factor

Today Freischlag’s teaching methods hinge, in part, on her open, inquisitive nature, always encouraging students and peers alike to consider the “why?” factor, a process that ultimately leads to transformations in care and education. 
“Creating an environment where someone can question what you’re doing has always allowed me to reflect on how we can make things better,” Freischlag said. 
At Johns Hopkins, she helped re-evaluate and revolutionize how teams ran the operating room — creating a more transparent environment.
“We started having everyone introduce themselves, calling each other by our first names and discussing the operation beforehand. Because of this, people felt more comfortable speaking up if there were issues, which in turn created an overall safer experience.” Freischlag would also meet with the chair of anesthesia, the head nurse and the administrator weekly to discuss issues between teams.

I take great joy in teaching others because I know they will go on to do even better work than I ever could before.

Julie Freischlag, MD ‘80

Now as a mentor of UC Davis medical students, Freischlag recalls, “At Rush I remember thinking how amazing it was that you could be an incredible educator — teaching people to be surgeons and researchers — but I never realized how much I would end up learning from my students.” 
Most recently, a young faculty member working with Freischlag questioned her on why certain operation practices regarding extra X-rays and placements of chest tubes were applied to all patients instead of selectively.
“I had never thought of it that way before, so we took another look,” Freischlag said. “As a result of this person simply asking ‘why?’ we no longer take as many X-rays with our patients or put as many chest tubes in. These are the moments when I take great joy in teaching others because I know they will go on to do even better work than I ever could before.”

The road ahead

Amid the shift of population health, Freischlag admits — especially as a vascular surgeon — it’s always been part of her career to take care of patients for the long haul. And now the next set of leaders must be ready to take over. 
“Influencing medical students while looking at a whole system of care, especially as it’s rapidly changing, is really something,” she said. “I talk to them about being leaders in medicine — much like my mentors at Rush once did — about staying open and grounded, trying to have a sense of humor, taking care of themselves and most of all, realizing how lucky we all are to take care of patients and create new ways to help people stay healthier longer.”


Rush is the proud alma mater of alumni who are on the leading edge of health care worldwide. Which Rush alumni do you consider to be trailblazers in their field?

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