Dr. John Harkins

Constantly Teaching, Constantly Learning

“Passion.” It’s the first word John Harkins, MD, utters when he thinks about what he wants his ob-gyn residents to learn from him.

“This isn’t a job. It’s something you do out of the love you have for the women and infants we care for, and for the miracles we witness every day,” Harkins says.

For a quarter of a century, Harkins has been delivering babies and caring for women as an obstetrician and gynecologist. At Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (SMCA) – Seton’s center of excellence for maternity care – he also serves as teacher, coach, advocate and confidant for residents honing their skills in this time-honored subspecialty.

SMCA is one of four teaching hospitals for Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, which welcomes its inaugural class June 2016. Austin’s largest medical and surgical acute care center, SMCA is a training ground where seasoned academic doctors like Harkins guide new doctors in the nitty-gritty details of medical practice.

  • A gray cat scurries between Labrador Boone and cockapoo Beignet. Each says "good morning" to John G. Harkins, MD, even before he has a chance to greet his wife. "I've often thought of what else I could be doing for a career to bring me such great joy. I still draw a blank. I have no trouble getting up in the mornings."


In Constant Motion

Each year, Harkins participates in the delivery of about 1,000 newborns. Every family, every delivery and every moment in between is a teaching opportunity for Harkins.

Alongside his residents, he moves perpetually up and down hospital halls and stairs in his cross-trainers, hashing through the details of each patient. What worked well? How should we weigh our treatment options? What could we do even better next time?

“If I can get them to understand what an incredible part of most women’s lives we are, and how utterly fortunate we are to have the ability to do what we do, then that’s what I want to be remembered for. Just passion,” Harkins says.

Medicine at its Purest

When asked why teaching makes him a better doctor, Harkins doesn’t skip a beat.

“That’s easy. It’s the purity of academic medicine,” he says.

Whereas private practice can be fraught with external considerations like finances and market competition, academic medicine exists without any such constraints, he says.

“It forces you to practice evidence-based, pure medicine. Being an academician is just pure medical practice and that’s what I love about it,” Harkins says. “You’re simply doing what’s right for the patient, and you don’t have to think about anything else.”

Staying at the Top of the Game

Teaching others means Harkins is constantly learning and relearning new methods and approaches to medicine. He’s reading all the latest research, staying on his tiptoes, because at any turn one of his residents is going to pose a question and he’s the one who has to know the answer.

“It requires you to be current, it forces you to be on top of the literature,” Harkins says.

But that doesn’t mean he just gives them the answers, either.

“When a resident asks me a question, I respond with another question. I know the answer, but I won’t tell it to them because they won’t remember it.” It’s the Socratic method at its finest.

Instead, he prompts them to go dig for the answer, look up the relevant articles, read up on the case studies and the important editorials — forming lasting habits of investigation and inquisitiveness in every aspect of their careers as physicians.

Striking a Balance

Although he speaks wholeheartedly about the purity of academic medicine, Harkins believes balance in his career is what keeps him at his best. That’s why he sees his own patients as part of his medical practice at SMCA.

“Treating my own patients instills humility. Sitting on the side of a patient’s bed and talking to them makes me a better teacher,” Harkins says. “If you don’t come out of the academic world and actually sit down with your own patients, you’re going to lose that part of being a doctor. That means your residents won’t get that from you either.”

In the Still of the Night

It’s 9:48 p.m., Wednesday, May 4, 2016. Harkins sits down to make a quick phone call after two hours of rounding with his labor and delivery residents. Two of his patients are down the hall, preparing to deliver their babies. “SportsCenter” is on somewhere in the background. The night has just begun for him.

“At 3 a.m., the rest of the world is going to be asleep and I’m going to be doing this. I’m in my element,” Harkins says. “I’ve got the greatest job in the world.”