Felice Schnoll-Sussman

5 Questions With Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman

How improving the patient experience became a personal mission

Felice Schnoll-Sussman

When it comes to patient care, Dr. Felice Schnoll-Sussman wants everyone she treats to feel as if they are receiving, in her words, “a warm hug.”

“Even though I practice in a big academic medical center, I’ve always wanted it to feel like I’m providing concierge medicine,” says Dr. Schnoll-Sussman, Director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “I want the patient to feel as if their needs are being met and that we’re respecting them on every level.”

In early 2020, she realized that the traditional care model — a patient with symptoms comes for an initial visit, then must return for subsequent tests or specialist visits — was creating potentially months-long delays in diagnosis and treatment.

After almost two years of planning and preparation, Dr. Schnoll-Sussman launched the Dedicated Integrated GastroESophageal Treatment (DIGEST) program to help treat issues of the foregut, which can range from refractory reflux disease to motility disorders to esophageal cancer. Within her new integrated and multidisciplinary care team model, specialist visits and diagnostic tests are coordinated over the course of a few days, followed by a comprehensive meeting between the patients and their doctors to go over a treatment plan.

Dr. Schnoll-Sussman spoke with NYP Advances to share more about how the DIGEST program came together, how she defines personalized care, and advice she has for other doctors — and in particular, women — entering this field.

Launching DIGEST required some systemic changes. How did you get buy-in from your colleagues?

I’m a very enthusiastic person so I tried to help people see the vision. It’s easy to bring on the early adopters, so my strategy was to first get buy-in from the people who I knew would be critical. It’s natural for people to think they’re already doing things right, but when you put the data in front of them, it’s very hard to refute. I looked at a year’s worth of our data for patients who have dysphagia and found that from the time that they presented with difficulty swallowing to the time they got their diagnosis, they could experience potential delays of up to eight months. So, you have to ask yourself, what kind of morbidity is the patient experiencing over that timeframe? We had to figure out how to break down the silos between gastroenterologists and our surgical colleagues; streamline radiologic and endoscopic evaluations; and simply work more efficiently together.

Patients in the program now spend, on average, three to five days completing their appointments and can receive a full diagnostic workup in about 10 business days. And the camaraderie we’ve built through this program has been enormous. It’s exciting to be in the room with all these people that love taking care of patients.

Audio file
Dr. Schnoll-Sussman explains how a destination approach to care helped shape the DIGEST program.

Personalized care seems to be a big part of your approach to patient care. How do you define that?

At its root, personalized medicine is about tailoring treatment to a person’s specific diagnosis. It’s when we take all the information we have and the best of science to treat patients not like a number, but like Jane or John, so that we can attack their diagnosis fast and accurately. But I think there’s a second part to that, which is understanding a patient’s values and beliefs. For instance, there are many diseases where it would be easy to recommend an esophageal resection, but that person may never want surgery as part of their treatment. My approach to personalized medicine has always involved looking at the most targeted, best-in-class therapy for a patient, and then understanding their needs and wants so they are onboard with their treatment plan. One of the most important things you can do as a physician is to understand where they're coming from and develop the patient-physician rapport you’ll need to help them through the care cycle.

As a national leader in your field, how have you seen women grow in your specialty?

One of the reasons I got into gastroenterology was because there were very few women in it at the time, and I thought that there must be female patients who want to be seen by women physicians for these issues. But there's no doubt in my mind that the number of women entering gastroenterology now is paralleling that of women entering medical school.

So, some of my focus now as the current president of the American Foregut Society is supporting women interested in advancing in our specialty. I created a branch of the society called Women of the Foregut. It’s not just about how to apply patient care, it's also about mentoring young trainees in this arena. I've had an opportunity to work with them not only on what it means to be a scientist or a clinician, but also on how to manage their professional lives and understanding what a path to leadership looks like. We discuss questions like: How do you handle conflict management? How do you work toward a promotion? How do you collaborate or advance in your institution? It's extremely fulfilling work for me.

Dr. Schnoll-Sussman posing with Women of the Foregut sign.

Dr. Schnoll-Sussman created Women of the Foregut to offer mentorship and professional development opportunities for women physicians who specialize in foregut diseases.

What role has mentorship played in your career, and what advice do you have for younger doctors seeking out mentors?

I feel incredibly blessed to have had multiple mentors in my career. I remember I was doing my fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering and we had some rotations at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. I reached out to Dr. Ira Jacobson, who was the Chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at that time. I asked if I could walk in his shoes a little bit, and he allowed me to visit his practice and meet some of his patients. Several months went by and he told me that they were thinking of building the Jay Monahan Center, and he thought my interests in cancer and interventional endoscopy would be a good match. Even though he was a hepatologist and I wasn’t entering that field, he still acted as a mentor to me and saw the synergy. So, I often tell people that mentors don’t have to be your gender or work in your institution or your specialty. Don’t be afraid to seek out the qualities you admire in a person and engage with them. That’s something I certainly try to do myself when seeking out mentees.

What do you like to do for yourself that helps you in your work as a physician?

I love what exercise does for the mind and the body, so there’s not a day that I don’t work out. If I have a 7 a.m. scoping, I will be working out at 5 a.m. that day. It can be a very physical job being a gastroenterologist; sometimes we stand for eight to 10 hours doing procedures, so if you don’t have a strong core, back, arms, or mind it can impact how good you are at your job. But I also love the clarity that exercise brings me. It helps me be not only a better doctor but a better wife, mother, friend — just a better human being all around.

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