For the past 20 years, she has been one of the faces that welcomed students to Medical College of Georgia and the voice that ushered them out at graduation. This year, though, Dr. Ruth-Marie “Rhee” Fincher will march out with them as she retires from Georgia Health Sciences University.
As vice dean for academic affairs, she has made encouraging students and junior colleagues the focus of her more than 30 years in academic medicine.
She was already serving as an associate dean in 1994 when the school realized it needed someone to oversee the whole of medical education.
That would be a way to promote lifelong learning that begins before medical school and continues throughout a career, said Darrell G. Kirch, who was then the dean and is now the president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“We really created the position to respond to a need, and fortunately we had the best person in the world to fill that need in the form of Rhee Fincher,” he said, adding that she is a nationally recognized advocate of that approach. “Intellectually, there are few people in this country that understand medical education better. But I think the most important ingredient is she is a consummate teacher.”
Her love of teaching hit Fincher right away when she began at MCG in 1984 and has continued ever since.
The students gave her the Medical Educator of the Year Award eight times in 10 years before she took herself out of the running.
“In the last 20 years or so, the greatest joys of my own career have really come from helping other people get to do what they wanted to do,” she said. “And part of that has been advising and mentoring medical students and in the more recent years perhaps playing a similar role for quite a few faculty, particularly as the majority of the faculty became younger than I.”
Medical education has changed radically since her career began, getting away from mass lectures and moving toward more interactive learning and small-group teaching.
“She was really on the vanguard of acknowledging that change,” Kirch said. “Now it is about cultivating their competencies, and she on the national scene created groups that really did research into these issues and focused on how we could make medical education more relevant in such a rapidly changing world.She can take a great deal of personal pride into having shaped really a transformation of the way we view medical education.”
As she calls forward the graduates at the ceremony Friday for the last time, Fincher said, it probably won’t hit her that she is retiring until she actually does at the end of the month.
Kirch said she will still play a key role as a newly elected board member of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
There will always be the thousands of students to remind her of what her career has been all about.
“It’s such a joy; almost everywhere I go around the country, I run into at least one person who comes up to me as a former student and reintroduces themselves,” Fincher said. “It’s so joyful for me to see what – I always refer to them as ‘my students’ – have gone on to do with their careers and the good work they’re doing.”