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Dr. Dan McDougal is Herald-Mail's 2009 Person of the Year

December 31, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Dr. Dan McDougal had a strategy for dealing with insurance companies that put doctors through a game of "Mother May I" to get procedures approved.

When a company said it wouldn't pay for a CT scan or an MRI unless its staff authorized it first, McDougal, medical director for Antietam Health Services, would call the insurance company's medical director, who usually was in another state, and ask for the spelling of his name and his Maryland medical license number. When the medical director said he didn't have a Maryland license, McDougal threatened to call the state board of licensure and stressed the serious consequences of practicing medicine without a license.

"There'd be this long pause, and then they would all say the same thing: 'What do you want?'" he said.

In every aspect of McDougal's career, that answer has been the same -- the right care for patients.

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"I was taught at (Johns) Hopkins how to take care of people, how to practice medicine properly, and I've never let go of that, but in fact, I've lashed back at insurance companies and administrators who try to compromise care," McDougal, 64, said during a recent interview at his home near Williamsport.

For that dedication to improving access to medical care in this community, and for his adept leadership and kind, generous spirit, McDougal has been named The Herald-Mail's 2009 Person of the Year.

"I just think he's always cared about giving the best care to people that can be given, and sometimes the system makes it really hard to do that," McDougal's wife, Penny, said.

In addition to his work at Antietam Health Services, McDougal is a volunteer physician at the Community Free Clinic of Washington County, where, until recently, he also served as medical director.

In February, McDougal was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable, fatal neuromuscular disease.

As his body grew weaker, McDougal was forced to leave Antietam Health Services and the free clinic, but he has continued to advise the free clinic staff and to ensure the clinic's continued success by setting up an endowment fund that raised nearly $100,000 in a matter of months.

"He gives so much and asks for nothing in return," clinic medical receptionist Tammy Ebersole wrote in her Person of the Year nomination, one of four submitted on behalf of McDougal.

The child of a short-lived World War II romance, McDougal was born at a hospital in Bethesda, Md., but as an infant was adopted by a family in California. He grew up on the beach surfing and playing beach volleyball and basketball. On foggy days, he headed to the library, where, as an athlete interested in how the body worked, he pored through anatomy books and discovered his interest in medicine.

McDougal was a straight "A" student in high school, and was accepted to Stanford University on a scholarship at a time when only one out of every 35 applicants was admitted. He attended year-round, majoring in physiology, with a minor in art history.

It was Stanford, McDougal said, that gave him the self-confidence that helped him stand up to insurance companies and serve as a medical director later in life.

Learning to lead

"They drilled into you that society needs leadership, and you're it," he said.

McDougal graduated from medical school at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center of Penn State University in 1971. After graduating, he was drafted and spent two years in the U.S. Air Force working at a detox center, where he treated many Vietnam veterans.

"It's a little-known fact, but the Viet Cong didn't beat us; drugs did," McDougal said.

After that, McDougal completed a residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center, spent two years as a rheumatology fellow at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and went into private practice in Baltimore, practicing internal medicine and rheumatology, or joint and tissue medicine.

But McDougal's experience at the military detox center stayed with him, and when he was offered an opportunity to practice addiction medicine at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, he jumped at the chance.

Unlike many addiction specialists, McDougal said he never used illegal drugs, never smoked a cigarette or drank alcohol. Still, he said he was able to understand addicts in a way that won the respect of patients.

McDougal said addiction is a genetic disease, predetermined by neurochemistry, and the most important part of treating addicts is orienting them to think of addiction as a disease with which they were born.

"You come in as an addict, you'll go out as an addict, and all you have to do is keep away from the substance," he said.

Despite McDougal's talents, work in addiction treatment was scarce, and in 1998, he accepted a job as medical director for Antietam Health Services, the for-profit arm of Washington County Health System, and moved to Washington County.

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