What’s next for Dr. Dan Cherkin, investigator emeritus?

Retired but still contributing, GHRI’s renowned alternative-care researcher pursues alternatives to the 40-hour work week.

Q: Well, Dan, how does it feel to be retiring after 31 years at Group Health Research Institute?

Dan: I have mixed feelings. Retiring now feels right for me but I will miss my daily interactions with so many colleagues who have made my time at GHRI so enjoyable and meaningful.

Q: What do you consider your research team’s greatest contributions to knowledge?

Dan: I believe our team made important contributions to the understanding of ways in which care for back pain can be improved. Our research highlighted the importance of looking beyond the often unhelpful (and sometimes harmful) conventional medical approaches to back pain by documenting through rigorous research, the value of “alternative” approaches (e.g., acupuncture, massage, mindfulness meditation, yoga) and by highlighting important effects of “contextual” factors (e.g., clinician-patient relationships) on patient outcomes (healing).

Q: Was there any event during your time at GHRI that stands out in your mind?

Dan: Yes. In 2000, several key leaders left during a short period of time. I began serving as acting director; a role I held for two years. Because I did not have much leadership experience, this was the most challenging and growth-producing period of my professional life. With the partnership and support of the remaining leaders at the Institute (and Hugh Straley, a Group Health leader who I reported to), we managed to restore our leadership and management team and strengthen our relationship with Group Health leadership. I feel proud of what our transitional leadership team was able to collectively accomplish.

Q: Were there any disappointments or frustrations you will remember?

Dan: Yes, during the last 10 years I often struggled trying to obtain adequate grant funding to sustain our research program. Running faster and faster (i.e., writing more and more grants) didn’t result in obtaining adequate funding and was draining. Fortunately, I think the funding situation for research on chronic pain is finally improving as a result of widespread alarm about the epidemic of opioid addictions and death.

Q: What do you plan to do in your retirement?

Dan: In a few days, Wendie and I will be leaving for a two-week vacation in France, during which I hope to clear out my work-focused brain and allow ideas for what I want to do to emerge naturally. I definitely look forward to spending more time with my family and friends, traveling, reading, embracing new experiences and even puttering around the house.

Q: Will you be completely hanging up your research spurs?

Dan: No. I will be working to complete several manuscripts over the next several months. I have no desire to write more grant proposals, but still feel invested in supporting efforts to improve care for back pain. I believe I have learned a lot over the past three decades that could be helpful to organizations committed to taking the actions necessary to make meaningful improvements in care processes and patient outcomes. Thanks in part to the research we have done at GHRI, we now know ways in which we can improve care for back pain. The problem is actually implementing that knowledge into policy, medical education, and practice. I am looking forward to continuing to work with Group Health leadership on a pilot study of an innovative approach to improving care for back pain. Another recent opportunity that I am enjoying is serving on a planning committee for a state-of-the-art conference on non-pharmacologic approaches to chronic pain sponsored by the Veterans Administration. This could lead to the development and evaluation of some cutting edge innovative approaches in the VA setting. I would also like to publish some “thought pieces” in influential medical journals to help promote the changes in thinking about back pain that I think are necessary for changes in policy, education, and practice to occur.

Because of my continuing interest in the fields of back pain and “healing” more generally and my desire to remain connected with my friends and colleagues at GHRI, I have applied for and have been granted “emeritus” status. This will allow me to maintain a presence at GHRI, including a work space, my Group Health email, and access to my e-files and resources such as the online Group Health medical library. I am not yet sure how often I will appear at GHRI, but I remain interested in helping the Institute, the CAM and back pain research teams, and junior faculty in any way I can.

Q: Any final thoughts, Dan?

Dan: Yes, I want to say that I feel very lucky to have been a part of the remarkable success of GHRI over the years. The leadership, researchers, and staff are first-rate and have collectively created an exceptional research institute that is highly and widely respected across the country and around the world. A key part of our success has been attracting and retaining individuals across all job categories who are not only very competent and productive, but also thoughtful, kind, and compassionate. I wish you all the best for continued success in the future and will miss you.