Inside Track: A new world of medicine
Originally concerned with becoming a clinician, John Butzer finds just as much fulfillment in the administrative side of field.
For nearly three decades, John Butzer was the chief of medicine at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. But three years ago, in the twilight of his career, Butzer retired from that position to take on a new challenge — and in the process, reached one of his top accomplishments in his tenured career.
In 2014, after 29 years as Mary Free Bed’s CMO, Butzer accepted the position of research director, where he oversees the hospital’s research center, created via a partnership with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
“I thought I could make a contribution in developing research and basically building Mary Free Bed as a major teaching hospital by growing our research and education offerings,” Butzer said.
A native of Erie, Illinois, Butzer always had an interest in medicine. Since third grade, he picked health care as his desired career path. Sitting in the doctor’s office for a routine visit, Butzer was fascinated with the inner workings of the medical field, enjoying the hustle and bustle surrounding his physician’s office.
“My attraction to clinical medicine came from the opportunity to help people and make a difference in their lives, hopefully curing disease and making people whole again,” Butzer said. “I had contemplated other things while I was an undergrad, just testing the idea, but I was pretty focused on medicine from early on.”
Butzer attended the University of Illinois-Champaign for his undergrad before going north for medical school at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He completed his internship and residency in neurology at the University of Iowa, where he taught as an assistant professor of neurology for three years, a subject he initially was drawn to because of the challenges in understanding the complexity of the brain and diseases that affect it.
In 1976, a neurologic team Butzer had worked with at Iowa reached out with an opportunity to join the team at Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids. The opportunity to work in what would become one of the nation’s top cities for health care proved too tempting, and Butzer landed in West Michigan, where he immediately was drawn to the region’s sense of community and outdoors offerings.
Upon moving to West Michigan, Butzer joined the sailboat racing club at Reeds Lake, competing in small-boat sailing. What appealed to him the most was the necessary skill involved and peacefulness that comes with sailing — “it’s just you and nature, and if you’re not skillful, nature will win,” Butzer said.
He learned that the hard way early in his West Michigan sailboat racing career. The sail caught a high wind, the shroud, wedge and cable parted, and directly in front of the clubhouse, the boat flipped right over. For his troubles, the club presented Butzer with the crashed boat trophy.
“That was actually my first award in sailing,” he recalled, though it wasn’t his last. Butzer’s team eventually won a class club championship and regional championship, forged by the “hard knocks of experience.”
During his time at Blodgett, Butzer encountered the biggest inflection point in his career. He was elected chief of staff and made the transition from clinical medicine to the administrative side.
The appointment came as a surprise — Butzer said up until that point, he primarily had been concerned with being a clinician. However, the opportunity to become involved with the management and organization of the hospital opened up the door to learning a new world surrounding the field of medicine.
“When it’s you and the patient, you have pretty much control over the whole situation,” Butzer said. “And when you want to develop policies and procedures for doing things involving the lives of 500 physicians and getting consensus, it’s a bit of a different process. There can be multiple points of view‚ all of which are right — in the context of the narrow specialty, but it’s about how you put that together in an organization that results in a lot of complex thinking and compromise and education.”
After nearly 10 years at Blodgett, Butzer came to Mary Free Bed, where he was named chief medical officer in 1985. In his time as CMO, Butzer said he is proud to have been a part of Mary Free Bed’s evolution in care and attention to bringing top-level health services to Grand Rapids.
“I think the ability to bring that type of world-class care to a community the size of Grand Rapids is unusual,” he said.
Butzer also takes a particular point of pride in his involvement in developing the Mary Free Bed YMCA, where he also serves as a board member.
“The ‘Y’ has taken accessibility for people with disabilities to a whole new level, additionally setting a new standard for buildings internationally,” Butzer said of the 36-acre, LEED-certified facility.
At 73 years old, Butzer sees retirement creeping on the horizon. By shifting his focus from the duties of CMO to research director, he has had the unique opportunity to step back from the grind of what Butzer termed a 110-percent job, while still playing a key role in Mary Free Bed’s continued growth and still helping the patients of West Michigan stay healthy.
“I think that the most enjoyable part (as research director) is being able to help Mary Free Bed as an institution position itself as a leader in value-based care,” Butzer said. “One of the challenges of medicine now is how we deliver good care effectively with the cost of medicine increasing.
“That’s a rising challenge now, and research is a tool that allows us to find new ways to improve the care while slowing down the increasing costs from year to year.”
Butzer said he is remaining involved with the search for a permanent director of research to fill his shoes, and the hospital is hoping to recruit a replacement with a nationally respected pedigree and the drive to add depth to the relationship between Mary Free Bed and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
For up-and-coming physicians looking to follow in his footsteps and transition to administrative medicine, Butzer suggests first becoming accomplished in clinical work before making the jump. He said the transition to the administrative side is less jarring after building a career as a clinician and provides valuable insight in the decision-making process that will affect the lives of the hospital staff.
“I would say that there is a science to management, just like there is a science to medicine,” he said. “And I also would say to get education in management — don’t assume that your intuition is always correct.”
Sometimes, overconfidence in intuition can lead to a capsized sailboat in Reeds Lake. But by building the skills and not being afraid to seek out an education, Butzer believes a long and fruitful career in administrative medicine can be within reach.