Why I Teach – Ken Gatter, J.D., M.D.

In October 2012, six members of the School of Medicine faculty were recognized by their peers for excellence in teaching. This Q&A series profiles recipients of the 2012 "Faculty Excellence in Education Award" and asks them the question, "Why do you teach?"

Dr. GatterMarch 23, 2013

This month's Q&A features Ken Gatter, J.D., M.D., associate professor of pathology, vice chair of anatomic pathology and practicing hematopathologist. Dr. Gatter is also an adjunct professor at Willamette Law School in Salem.

Dr. Gatter's area of interest is the interaction of health care and the law. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 1989, he received his medical degree in 1995 from the University of Nebraska Medical School in Omaha. He began his residency training at Case Western University/University Hospitals in Cleveland, and completed residency training and a fellowship in surgical pathology at OHSU. He joined the Portland VA Medical Center in 2000, and moved over to OHSU in 2002.

Dr. Gatter is course director for Basic Biology of Disease (BBOD), a first-year course that introduces medical students to pathology, immunology and infectious disease. Dr. Gatter also teaches some pathology in the second-year courses and offers an elective on Health Law Issues, which is a seminar for OHSU medical students and Willamette Law students. His research is primarily on health law issues and is published in legal literature. He is also interested in translational research in hematopathology. 

Q&A with Ken Gatter, J.D., M.D.

Why did you first become attracted to an academic career?

Like many people, this evolved somewhat by accident. It certainly isn't the result of a carefully thought out plan. I initially took the job because it allowed greater flexibility; it allowed me to incorporate my previous schooling and experience as a lawyer, while being able to practice pathology surrounded by excellent pathologists. The variability and ability to learn every day is still an attractive part.

Why do you teach?

There are many reasons. I like getting to know some of the students. I like to think it keeps me a little younger. It's humbling because students ask good questions and they are very smart. They see things anew. I like seeing students move through their education and contribute to our health care.

Are great teachers born, or are they made?

You should ask one. But I imagine it's probably both. Looking around I think good teachers have to care about their students and then work at getting better.

 What are the great challenges to teaching in the 21st century?

This is an interesting question. I think in many ways the challenges are the same as they always have been: to effectively teach in an affordable way. The obvious difference for the 21st century, I suppose, is technology and whether this makes a difference. Online lectures and courses like those offered by Coursera are standardizing and allowing access to great lectures and materials, but we have to remember that most of education comes from personal interaction and "learning on the job." The other difference is that the role of physicians will continue to change and we need to provide our students with the tools, as well as the information, to prosper in the world that is ahead of them, not the one that has been.

Does the wide-ranging diversity of your students affect how you teach?

In one sense, there isn't really that much diversity since all the students are in medical school. That may sound flippant, but the students at OHSU are all similar in that their backgrounds brought them to medical school, which makes our job easier. In this sense, most high schools have more diversity than our OHSU medical school class.

On the other hand, there is considerable diversity in the experience of our medical students, a characteristic that makes OHSU special. These differences in culture, life and work experiences among our medical students can impact how students approach various topics and different patients. Their diversity allows them to teach one another how to approach differences. I teach mostly in the first year of medical school in a largely basic science-oriented course, so we try to make an effort to appeal to a diverse spectrum of learners and we listen to students' concerns about how to improve our course. Notwithstanding, I'm sure I could do a better job recognizing, encouraging and celebrating differences among our students.  

What do you think education will look like at OHSU in the future?

I don't know, but I have some hopes. I hope that we will have fewer lectures, because I know I start to drift after about 20 minutes listening to the best lecturers. I hope we don't forget about the basic sciences and I hope we remember that students learn from each other, from doing the job and working hard.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult at times to balance demands for clinical work and research with teaching. Certainly, the institution can help by appropriately compensating teachers for their time and effort and such compensation can take the form of money, or recognition for P&T, or other awards.