Staying on Course
Spurred by his love of athletics, Harris Frankel, MD, once considered becoming an orthopaedic surgeon and focusing on sports medicine. As skilled at reading a putt as he is at reading an MRI, he also might have taken a swing at professional golf.
Dr. Frankel could have chosen those careers, but after his first rotation in general surgery, and while rotating through internal medicine, he came to a realization. It isn’t that he changed his mind.
The mind changed him.
“I found myself fascinated by neurological cases,” Dr. Frankel recalls. “I’d always been intrigued by the nervous system, how we as humans can think about a task and perform it in a nanosecond, and the complex function of memory and higher thinking. More and more I became attracted to cases with neurological complications.”
At the end of his third year of study, he rotated with the Omaha neurological practice of John C. Goldner, MD.
“Dr. Goldner was a tremendous mentor to me,” Dr. Frankel says. “When I was applying for residencies, he said that if I ever came back to Omaha, I’d have a place in his office.”
Dr. Frankel did return to Omaha and joined Dr. Goldner as well as Drs. Clifford Danneel (now deceased), Ronald Cooper, Joel Cotton and Robert Sundell as a partner in their neurology practice. Drs. David Franco and T. Scott Diesing joined later as partners.
“Omaha has a terrific medical community,” Dr. Frankel says. “The University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and The Nebraska Medical Center are widely recognized for innovation, research and high quality care. I believe healthcare in Omaha is as fine as the care available anywhere.”
Maintaining and enhancing that care is precisely the goal of several organizations and initiatives that call upon Dr. Frankel for leadership and advice.
An Omaha native, Dr. Frankel, 50, is the son of the late Dean and Barbara (Nogg) Frankel. His father was co-founder of the Omaha accounting firm Frankel Zacharia. His father died in 2004 of cardiac disease, and his mother died three weeks later of kidney failure after a lengthy battle with cancer.
“The timing of their deaths seemed almost fitting because in life they were inseparable,” he says. “They were best friends.”
As a child, Dr. Frankel developed a condition called osteochondritis, a painful inflammation of the growth plate of a major joint, in his case the knees.
“When I was a kid, I played Little League baseball, football and ice hockey,” Dr. Frankel recalls. “I loved sports. But from when I was 9½ until I was 10½, my right leg was in a cast. At the time, rest was the prescribed management.”
His affliction sparked an interest in medicine — and golf.
“I took up golf when I was 11 out of desperation because I could no longer play the other sports,” he says.
At his father’s side, he learned the game and some lessons in life. “I found that the true character of an individual — or the lack of character — comes out on the golf course,” he says.
At age 14, he competed in the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego, Calif. “Nick Price won that year,” he says, referring to the pro golfer who in the 1990s reached No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
As a sophomore at Burke High School, Dr. Frankel was a member of the golf team that won the state championship. He won several invitational titles his senior year, including Metro and Districts.
Returning to California, he attended the University of California San Diego where he and his fellow Triton varsity golfers enjoyed “reasonable success” playing against several Division I schools.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in animal physiology (with a concentration in neurophysiology) in 1982, he abandoned the notion of professional golf to concentrate on medicine. “I realized being a scratch golfer didn’t mean much,” he says. “There are a lot of scratch golfers out there.”
But there were few who could combine the mental game of golf with the study of neurology.
Dr. Frankel earned his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in 1986. He completed his internship in internal medicine at Creighton University College of Medicine in Omaha in 1987, and his residency in neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in 1990. He has been in private practice since.
Board certified in neurology, Dr. Frankel is an assistant professor at the Department of Internal Medicine at UNMC. He is the immediate past president of the Metro Omaha Medical Society, chairman of the Committee on Medicare for the Nebraska Medical Association and of the Electronic Health Records Task Force. He is also an advisory member of the board of the Accountable Care Alliance, a partnership of the Methodist Health System, The Nebraska Medical Center and their affiliated physicians.
Inaugurated in February, the Alliance is structured like an accountable care organization, which relies on a network of primary care physicians, specialists and hospitals to share best practices to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of healthcare delivery to a defined patient population. It is one of the models being considered by the federal government under healthcare reform as a way to reduce healthcare costs.
Dr. Frankel says the Alliance underscores the direction healthcare reform is taking, where fees are based not on the type of service delivered but on quality of care and outcomes.
“The news about healthcare reform has largely focused on access and coverage for the uninsured and underinsured,” he says, “but the bottom line is, access and coverage don’t guarantee quality care. Moreover, there are many variables that affect patient outcomes, not the least of which is patient responsibility.”
Access to care also needs to be broadened. “We need to concentrate more on getting people to the appropriate portals of care,” he says, “not just to high-cost emergency departments and urgent care facilities.”
Additionally, Dr. Frankel is president of the Nebraska Health Information Initiative, (NeHII) Inc., a nonprofit organization that has developed a statewide, interoperable, secure exchange for health information. The exchange connects Nebraska hospitals, physicians, pharmacies and insurance payers and has become a model for the nation.
“This technology allows the physician or other provider to have real-time information at the point of care,” Dr. Frankel says, “regardless of where that information was generated.”
NeHII is designed to share clinical and administrative data among providers in Nebraska, and ultimately other states, in the hope of improving healthcare while ensuring the security and privacy of medical information.
“I have become enamored with the mission of bringing electronics and technology to healthcare,” Dr. Frankel says. “We deal with a considerable amount of data today, but so much of it is on paper. We need to have the right information available at the right time to do the right thing for the patient. Technology helps us do that.
“Recognizing the value of making clinical information available electronically at the point of care will prove hugely beneficial in the delivery of care to everyone in the state.”
While in medical school at UNMC, Dr. Frankel met and fell in love with fellow student Janice R. Peterson, who also earned her medical degree in 1986.
“She is a disciplined, critical thinker who has a way of looking at things in a non-emotional way,” he says. “She brings clarity to everything.”
As was the case with his parents, “She and I are truly best friends,” he says.
Married 23 years, the Frankels have four children: Sarah, 19, and Emily, 18, both students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Hannah, 15, a sophomore at Westside High School; and Sam, 12, a seventh-grader at Westside Middle School.
Dr. Frankel also enjoys cooking and reading. “Although I don’t create enough time to read as I should,” he says.
He still plays golf, competing this year in his first State Seniors’ Tournament, finishing in the top 20. “It was fun,” he adds. “I’ve played with some of these guys for 35 years.”
But his favorite partner is his son, Sam.
“Some of my best memories as a kid are the days I spent on the golf course with my dad and my grandfather,” Dr. Frankel says. “The bonding experience was really incredible and it’s the same with my son. Once we get out there and get to talking, quite frankly I couldn’t care less what I shoot those days.”
His office is adorned with medical certifications and awards, as well as photos of famous golfers. But when asked about his greatest accomplishment to date, Dr. Frankel points to just one photo, that of his family.
“I’ve been blessed to be relatively successful in amateur golf,” he says. “I have a successful career in medicine, I’ve helped my patients and I’ve earned the respect of my peers.
“Above and beyond all that, my best and brightest day is the day I got married. Our family is a reflection of Jan and me. They’re good kids and they're good students who respect authority and their parents, most of the time. Today, that’s something special.”
It's even more special knowing Dr. Frankel chose to study medicine rather than stay on the course he had been playing.
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