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San Diego VA Doctor Patients’ Best Friend

Doctor and Veteran Patient

Dr. James Michelsen of VA San Diego tests the strength of a patient during a routine visit.

By Christopher Menzie, Public Affairs Specialist
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

VA has an exceptionally talented team of outstanding employees. We would like you to meet them, starting with our dedicated staff of doctors. We will be introducing an eminent doctor in a continuing feature: VA’s Top Doctors.

We continue our series with Dr. James Michelson, associate chief of primary care at VA San Diego.

Simple Things Make a Great Doctor

When Air Force Veteran Jack Rathburn thinks about excellent health care, little things set good doctors apart from great doctors.

“So many doctors now are in a rush and I love a doctor who’s not,” he said. “I want someone who’s easy going and great to talk to and has a great bedside manner.”

For him, that doctor is Dr. James Michelson, the associate chief of primary care at VA San Diego Healthcare System. Rathburn has seen Michelsen since enrolling for VA health care in 2007 and the secret to this longstanding relationship is in the doctor’s demeanor.

“Dr. Michelson reminds me of those doctors from 50 years ago where they sit down and talk to you and are like your best friend and take care of everything,” Rathburn said. “And, he always gets back to you in a timely manner, even on a Saturday.”

“I think very much about what I would want as a patient.”

According to Michelsen, timeliness is the key to quality health care and it’s been something he’s focused on since joining the VA as a physician in 2000. He worked at other local private hospitals prior to his current position but he finds his work with Veterans to be the most comforting and rewarding.

“I love working with those who served our country. It’s one of the main reasons for my coming to the VA,” he said. “My mother also served as a career nurse for VA, so it’s very familiar to me and also where I’m most comfortable working with patients.”

Over the years, one of Michelsen’s priorities has been to focus on the things Veterans care about the most: improving the patient experience which includes expanding clinical access and improving coordination with interdisciplinary primary care teams, known as PACT. While PACT meets patients’ needs, patient access to care rises to the top for Michelsen.

“I think very much about what I would want as a patient and I try to bring that experience to the Veterans I serve,” he says. “I also think about what VA’s needs are and what my needs are as a doctor regarding outcomes. You have to find that fine line where you can satisfy all three areas and one of the keys to that is to make sure you spend time with patients and answer all of their questions.”

Dr. Michelsen examines a patient during a medical examination in July. Dr. Michelsen examines a patient during a medical examination in July

With every appointment, there’s a limited time providers can spend with patients, but part of the trick according to Michelsen is to be efficient with your time as a doctor.

“If I have a half an hour during a typical appointment, I will spend a majority of that time with my patient and I will try to involve them with some of my work as well to be as efficient as I can,” Michelsen says. “Beyond that, we get many phone calls and emails from our Veterans and we’ll always try to respond to them in a timely manner outside of appointment times. We have time built in for that but we’ll also spend the extra time outside of work to answer their questions outside of visits. Many of our patients enjoy that, especially if they have to drive long distances for appointments and have to fight traffic and search for parking.”

“You can win awards and be published in medical journals, but as a doctor, you can’t forget what makes all the difference,” said Dr. Robert Smith, chief of staff and acting director at San Diego. “The great care you provide to your patients is what ultimately matters.”

While there have been many notable accomplishments during his career, it’s these little things that resonate most between Dr. Michelsen and his patients.