The Division of Cardiac Surgery at Mass General welcomes new chief. Thoralf M. Sundt III, MD, bridges legacy of surgical practice and passion for new ideas to improve upon the patient experience.
New chief of Cardiac Surgery ready for impact
Cutting waste, improving communication
Thoralf M. Sundt, III,
MD, chief of the Division
of Cardiac Surgery and
co-director of the Heart
Center at Mass General
The arrival of the new chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery, Thoralf M. Sundt III, MD, came with a great deal of excitement for the Mass General Hospital (MGH) community earlier this year. Sundt left behind a successful 10-year career at the Mayo Clinic to return to the place he completed his residency, MGH. Settling into his role as co-director of the Heart Center and as professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, Sundt is bringing his experience as a cardiac surgeon, which spans over two decades, and is enthusiastic about being a part of MGH and the renowned Boston medical community.
Take a look in his office, and the 7th generation physician’s appreciation for medicine stands out. Photos, surgical instruments and furniture, like the chair that was in his great-grandfather’s Wenonah, NJ waiting room office, are some of the items Sundt surrounds himself with. They remind him medicine has strong roots in his family line, and there is certainly some neat history in his family. His father, Thoralf M. Sundt Jr., a distinguished brain surgeon at Mayo Clinic, had the honor of operating on former President Ronald Reagan. Sundt was in school at the time and remembers his father kept a low profile.
“They [Mayo Clinic] kept these things pretty quiet. It wasn’t hot in the press, and that was appropriate. I think my Dad took it all in stride,” says Sundt.
His father’s humble nature was evident; he recalls the time his mother found an invitation in a waste basket to a dinner at the White House. When his mother confronted his father, he used the excuse of being busy.
Sundt points out, “That would have been pretty typical of him.” However, the work Sundt’s father performed did not go unnoticed. CBS News’ “60 Minutes” profiled him in a 1991 episode, one year before he passed away from bone marrow cancer.
Given Sundt’s family history, it was only natural for him to practice medicine. He earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University and his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Before joining Mayo Clinic in 2001, he trained in thoracic surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine, completed fellowships at the National Cancer Institute and at Harefield Hospital in London, England, and held appointments with the Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. While at Mayo Clinic, he served as vice chair of the Department of Surgery, was the director of the Cardiovascular Surgical Research Laboratory, co-directed the Marfan and Thoracic Aortic Clinic, and was professor of surgery. Sundt is active in all the major organizations in his field and serves as secretary of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS). His name also frequently appears in surgical publications, publishing more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and more than 30 book chapters.
After spending a decade at Mayo Clinic, Sundt was inspired to move back to Boston for new challenges. “I think there are some special things about the MGH. The opportunity to have an impact is greater here.” He adds, “There’s no place in the universe that has the kind of intellectual horsepower that Boston has.”
Sundt is eager about making a difference at MGH. While his interests in aortic surgery, the repair of aortic aneurisms and other complex aortic pathologies will keep him busy doing lab work and clinical research, he is also passionate about finding ways to improve patient safety and reduce medical errors and costs.
As chair of the Workforce on Patient Safety for the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), Sundt is encouraged the programs of annual meetings of both the STS and AATS delve into the topics of patient safety and errors. He says professionals who try to belittle the subject matter are unfortunately in denial.
“There’s medical error all around us and the medical error I think comes from the complexity of what it is that we do today, which is rapidly increasing, and it’s increased just over the 20 years I’ve been a cardiac surgeon.” Checklists are helpful, he says, but teamwork and communication are the main elements that need to be at play.
“We have to work on facilitating communication in the operating room and on the step-down units. We have to change the way we do things.”
With increased teamwork and communication, Sundt is hopeful hospitals across the nation will achieve positive results. He says it will act as “pathway” for improved patient outcomes and for improved efficiency.
“If you reduce waste, you reduce costs,” says Sundt. In terms of care patients can expect to receive at MGH, Sundt expects the Heart Center to continue to offer superior care.
“Another product of cutting out waste and improving coordination is it makes it better for everyone. It will be make it better for the patients, the caregivers and the payers, because it will ultimately be less expensive to provide the care if we can cut out the waste and improve the coordination of care.”
For Sundt, providing exceptional patient care is a top priority, and he is energized about working with his colleagues to improve the patient experience.
“I recognize the culture of this institution is unique and honor it. What you see every time you walk in a hallway here is people that are trying hard to actually take care of patients; they really care about the patients.”
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