Britain W. Nicholson, MD, became Mass General’s senior vice president for Development in June 2016. Previously, he had been a senior vice president and chief medical officer since 1997. Dr. Nicholson received his medical degree from Duke University in 1976 and completed his residency training in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1980. Dr. Nicholson, who still cares for patients, is married to Celeste Robb-Nicholson, MD, an internist at Mass General.
“The personality of this place — clearly valuing patient care and putting it first — was something that resonated with me. And it still does.”
What inspired you to pursue medicine?
When I was growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., we shared a backyard with the Parkers, a family who were close friends. One of the sons, John, went into medicine and did his residency at Mass General. John came back for a faculty position at the University of North Carolina after my sophomore year there.
One summer day, I went with John to a student-run health clinic in Durham. I was really taken with both the subject matter and the humanity. Most of the patients were African-American. They had no access to insurance. One middle-aged fellow had difficulty controlling hypertension. Another had diabetes. That was a turning point for me.
What brought you to Boston?
In medical school at Duke, I met my wife, who was two years behind me. And so I stayed at Duke for my internship. I took a year out after my internship to set up continuing education programs at three small community hospitals in and around Durham. When my wife graduated, she was offered a position at the Brigham and I was offered a junior residency position at the Mass General. Our plans were to stay in Boston for two years, but life is what happens while you’re making plans.`
What do you remember most about your arrival at Mass General in 1978?
My first rotation was in the emergency room. The very first night, at about 2 a.m., this figure comes striding through. He was dignified, gentlemanly, soft-spoken, erudite and knowledgeable. It was Roman DeSanctis.
One of his patients was an assistant baker in the North End. The patient’s wife had called him and said her husband was having significant cardiac symptoms. Roman, who was already an international figure, met them in the emergency room.
It was very busy and Roman pitched in. He wheeled his patient from the cardiac room to X-ray and then wheeled him back. At the bedside, Roman reassured the patient and the wife. And about an hour and a half later, after the patient was “tucked in” and ready for admission, he went home.
Walking home that morning, I could not have felt prouder to be doing the job I was doing and to be at the place where I was. The personality of this place — clearly valuing patient care and putting it first — was something that resonated with me. And it still does.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing medicine?
There’s been an explosion of knowledge. One of the challenges for a provider is keeping up with that. Secondly, the pace has gotten busier.
“As an institution, we need to make sure our clinicians feel supported and empowered because that allows them to “pay it forward” to their patients.”
As an institution, we need to make sure our clinicians feel supported and empowered because that allows them to “pay it forward” to their patients.
We need to preserve those things that make medicine an attractive and rewarding career while also responding to a mandate from the public to make health care as available and affordable as possible.
Why did you make the change from chief medical officer to senior vice president for Development?
A little more than 20 years ago, my wife and I were asked to go down to Florida for one of the very first development events that Mass General had there. I soon learned that development understood, just as well as the providers, that it’s all about the next patient who crosses the threshold. So, over the years, I’ve gotten more involved in philanthropy.
When I was approached to consider the development job, I’d been chief medical officer for almost 20 years. Sometimes, it’s best to make a change. But I also saw it as a chance to connect with our talented researchers and clinicians and with people who have the capacity and are generous and want to feel good about what they’re doing with their resources. I am thrilled that I’m doing what I’m doing.
People who are fortunate enough to be able to give are often solicited for funds. Knowing what I know about this institution and its people, I feel like I am giving them the opportunity to invest wisely and to feel good about it. If they have a good experience with us, see that we’re wise stewards of their money and see the benefits of what they have allowed us to do, then they’ll come back.
Why is philanthropy so important to medicine?
Medicine is rapidly progressing in terms of the way we deliver care and in terms of the knowledge base. Meanwhile, traditional funding sources like the National Institutes of Health are understandably conservative in the research projects they want to fund.
The very best and brightest coming out of PhD programs and medical schools are seeking training opportunities here. Our ability to retain those individuals on our faculty is largely determined by having unrestricted resources to invest in their ideas. Unrestricted resources come from philanthropy.
“We’re so fortunate to have a patient base that trusts the institution and is willing to bet on its future. And our hospital was born out of philanthropy.”
Philanthropy also helps us develop special programs like Parenting at a Challenging Time, which helps parents with a serious or terminal illness take care of parenting issues. That’s not something that is reimbursed through traditional mechanisms, but makes an enormous difference.
Our current substance use disorder initiative came out of our strategic planning process well before the headlines about an opioid crisis. Funding for the initiative came through philanthropy.
We’re so fortunate to have a patient base that trusts the institution and is willing to bet on its future. And our hospital was born out of philanthropy. I love that quote about faith being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see. That has really been a North Star for this institution and philanthropy makes that possible.