Dr. Jonas Johnson Centers Patient Outcomes and Patient Safety in Care

Jonas Johnson's, MD, FACS entire career as a head and neck surgeon has been dedicated to creating the best patient outcomes, with astute focus on patient safety.

Growing up in Jamestown, NY, near the lake, he was very interested in biology from a young age. While he considered being a veterinarian, he focused his sights on medical school, attending Dartmouth College and going on to receive his medical degree from SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY. As a freshman, his mentor piqued his interest in becoming a head and neck surgeon.

He received his medical degree from SUNY and completed two years of surgical residency at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond before returning to SUNY Syracuse to complete his residency training in otolaryngology.

Dr. Johnson served in the United States Air Force just after the Vietnam War. In 1979, he and his wife Janis moved with their three sons to Pittsburgh, where he worked at the University of Pittsburgh with Dr. Eugene Myers, an oncologist and otolaryngologist who was a leader in the treatment of head and neck cancer.

After 42 years at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Johnson announced in the fall of 2021 that he was stepping down as the chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology, where he also served as a professor of otolaryngology and radiation oncology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Department of Otolaryngology and a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. However retirement is not in his future, rather, he has shifted his focus to the UPMC Head & Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic.

Created by himself and Marci Lee Nilsen, a nurse who is an assistant professor in Pitt's School of Nursing, the Clinic takes a multidisciplinary approach to addressing the individual needs of survivors of head and neck cancer, including swallowing therapy, dental health, audiology, and physical therapy.

In all his roles former and current, Dr. Johnson has committed to the care of patients with head and neck tumors in an environment of education and research.

In 2015, he was appointed the surgical representative to the UPMC Surgical Services Oversight Committee, which was charged with improving efficiency and its safety record. Dr. Johnson explained in reviewing the data, the issue was that frail patients were not being identified before surgery despite the data showing that 13 percent of the 50,000 people having surgery per year were determined to be frail and of them 70 percent accounted for ICU admissions and almost 50 percent of costs and 30 percent of deaths.

Working with a collaborative committee, the hospital instituted a frailty risk analysis index. Dr. Johnson worked with the leadership of UPMC and paid surgeons to complete the analysis on their patients, requiring frail patients to be referred to the Center for Presurgical Care..

"Over the course of six or seven years, we were able to change the way surgeons saw frailty and to help them understand how avoidance of surgery, sometimes, is in the patient's best interest. Now, it's not that you say to the patient 'we can't do anything for you,' but instead we consider alternative interventions," said Dr. Johnson. He added that the systems change was not an easy one to adopt but would become an integral part of the system of patient evaluation as it continued to show positive results.

Reflecting on this change, Dr. Johnson said there are many areas ripe for change in the American healthcare system, but the opposition comes in part from the hubris of some doctors to admit that some problems cannot be fixed by surgery driven by a patient's desperation and willingness to try interventions despite small or nonexistence probabilities of positive results.

"There's this temptation to do things that won't work partly because the patient and family wants you to do it. In doing that you enter an alliance of folly. You must be responsible and not allow emotion to cause patients, families, and doctors to make irresponsible decisions whose outcomes are pretty much predictable," Dr. Johnson said.

Dedicating his entire life to treating patients with head and neck cancers, Dr. Johnon has been a vocal advocate of the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. He distinctly remembers the cancer patients he treated shifting from smokers to a large group of people who have never smoked.

He recalls going to the Allegheny Board of Health to testify for the HPV vaccine to be required for seventh grade, along with 16 other vaccinations needed to go to a public school, and the intense pushback from the public who were against vaccinations.

"In 2003, we realized that HPV is causing throat cancer and fast forward to today – it's the most prevalent cancer we see. HPV-related cancers are way up," Dr. Johnson said. "Vaccine hesitancy is a huge problem, but the reality is that HPV vaccination is picking up. With the alliance between the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, pediatricians, and lots of other entities there's been a pretty good uptake of the vaccine in our community."

Dr. Johnson has been a long-time friend of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, lauding it and Dr. Karen Wolk Feinstein for their inspirational energy, ambition, and vision for health care.

"JHF is inspiring because they're ambitious for change," Johnson said. "It's what we need in our world today."

Dr. Johnson embraces the promise and opportunity of adopting artificial intelligence into healthcare practices, especially when working in concert with humans who can assist AI in processing the nuance of individual patients, their symptoms, and their specific needs in the operating room.

"The reality is that computers will replace a lot of what we do because the computer can access more information than my brain will have access to, so it makes sense that computers can help us a lot," Dr. Johnson said.

During his career, Dr. Johnson has been named a top doctor in America by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. He has received many awards for his teaching and medical accomplishments and is a past president of both the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery the American Head and Neck Society, and the Triologic Society.

His legacy also includes receiving the rank of Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Reflecting on his career thus far, Dr. Johnson said, "I feel grateful to all the patients who have entrusted their care to me. They've helped me learn about health and health care," Dr. Johnson said. "And at the same time, I am so impressed by the velocity of change in the world of biomedical science. There is new information every single day of my life. If I had learned nothing since graduating from my residency, I would be completely obsolete today."

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