A Message from Dean Bass about the Passing of Dr. Thomas Piemme, Professor Emeritus of Health Care Sciences
It is with great sadness that I share with you news of the passing of Thomas Piemme, MD, Professor Emeritus of Health Care Sciences at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). Dr. Piemme led a most distinguished career at GW and was nationally acclaimed as a pioneer in medical informatics and as a founding leader of the professional discipline of Physician Assistants in health care. During his nearly 30 years at GW, Dr. Piemme founded the GW SMHS Physician Assistant Program, served as a professor of medicine, director of the Division of General Medicine, associate dean for continuing medical education, and was the chair of the Department of Computer Medicine. He was 89 years old.
If ever there was a person who embodied professional curiosity and the courage to pursue that quest to wherever that might lead, it was Dr. Piemme. Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), he described his career as one built on a series of chance encounters.
“Those of you who think you have your career planned out for you may well be mistaken. I certainly was,” Dr. Piemme said. “When I embarked upon academic medicine in 1966, I had no intention of doing what I ultimately did.”
Together with William Yamamoto, MD, Professor Emeritus of Computer Medicine at GW SMHS, and Helmuth Orthner, PhD, FACMI, a faculty member in the Department of Clinical Engineering at GW, Dr. Piemme helped create a new academic discipline in the mid-1970s, through establishment of the Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care, which later grew to become the American Medical Informatics Association. Dr. Piemme grew that symposium into the premier meeting on the design, development, and application of computer science based innovations to improve health care, and ultimately became the organization’s executive director.
Dr. Piemme was a leader in the PA profession nationwide as well. In the early 1960s, at a time when medical corpsmen were returning from Vietnam and looking for a place in health care, the U.S. health care system was suffering from a shortage of primary care physicians. Dr. Piemme, among others, saw those returning veterans, who were trained in managing patients suffering from acute injuries, as the ideal solution to the health care workforce issue.
As the demand for new physician assistants outpaced the number of graduates from the nation’s limited PA programs, Dr. Piemme received funding from the National Institutes of Health to establish a PA program at GW, within the SMHS. In 1972, GW accepted its inaugural class of 24 PA students, and one of GW’s most successful and highly ranked programs of study was born.
Dr. Piemme’s influence expended far beyond the borders of Foggy Bottom. He helped the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) and the Association of Physician Assistant Programs (APAP) found a joint office in Washington, D.C. He also helped the two organizations develop a national certification process for PAs and establish the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants to oversee certification of PAs. Later, Dr. Piemme was elected the second president of the APAP, succeeding it first president, Alfred M. Sadler, MD. The two would continue to work together on national initiatives that ultimately shaped the PA profession we know today.
In 1998, Dr. Piemme retired to Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Judy, who passed away in 2018. Dr. Piemme is survived by his daughters, Jennifer and Karen, and his son, Geoffrey.
Dr. Piemme’s dedication to forming a new clinical profession, coupled with his determination to grow that profession into a critical piece of health workforce infrastructure, is imbued in our PA program. Our current and former PA faculty members can be found at the highest levels of the AAPA as well as PA accrediting bodies and academic institutions around the world. Our PA students seek out GW to learn from the profession’s leaders.
I know I speak for the members of GW SMHS when I say that Dr. Piemme will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on at our institution.
While we do not yet know details of a memorial service, we will keep you informed when those details become available.
Gifts can be made in Dr. Piemme’s memory to the PA Scholarship Fund by visiting the following website. Scholarships and student support ensure every student has the opportunity to pursue their dream of becoming a GW Physician Assistant.
Barbara L. Bass, MD
Vice President for Health Affairs
Dean, GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Professor of Surgery
The George Washington University
CEO, The GW Medical Faculty Associates