Bertrand M. Bell, MD: An Iconoclast Who Became an Icon

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Bertrand M. Bell, MD, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, died at the age of 86 in his Manhattan home on October 4, 2016. For decades, Dr Bell was the Director of Ambulatory Care, which included the ED at Einstein’s teaching hospital, the Bronx Municipal (Jacobi) Hospital Center. But, as Dr Bell was aware for the last 25 years of his life, he would always be remembered for a committee he chaired the year he was on sabbatical from Einstein and Jacobi in 1987.

After the death of 18-year-old Libby Zion from a dangerous drug interaction, the New York State Commissioner of Health asked Dr Bell to chair an ad hoc committee to investigate the care of hospitalized patients by residents and to make recommendations regarding medication ordering and administration, the use of patient restraints, attending supervision, and resident work hours. The “Bell Commission,” as it came to be known, recommended that residents not be allowed to work more than 80 hours a week or more than 24 consecutive hours, and that attending physicians be present in the hospital 24/7. These recommendations were made part of the New York State Health Code in 1989 and adopted nationwide by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in 1993.

The Bell Commission changes in resident work hours were not enthusiastically received by all, with most of the criticism centering on a perceived lack of continuity in resident education resulting from the shortened work hours. Largely ignored, however, was the committee’s call for 24/7 attending supervision, which would have provided both continuity in patient care and enhanced resident education and experiences. Dr Bell was outspoken in defending his committee’s recommendations and his views on the inadequacies of graduate medical education (GME), occasionally infuriating those who disagreed with him.

Ironically, though the formal name of the Bell Commission was the “Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Emergency Services,” the recommendations did not address prehospital care issues and probably affected emergency medicine (EM) residents less than they did residents from other specialties. Both the work-hour rules and mandated attending presence had already been implemented by many EM residency training programs from the time EM became a specialty in 1979, and were required of all EM programs by the end of the 1980s. (See “’My Patient’—More Than Ever,” Emerg Med. 2013;45[4]:1.)

Yet, Bert Bell may have had as profound an effect on the birth and survival of academic EM on the East Coast as did his committee’s recommendations on GME nationwide. Together with his ED Director, Sheldon Jacobson, MD, Bert secured for Einstein/Jacobi the first federally funded paramedic training program in New York State in 1974, followed a year later by the first EM residency in New York State, and one of the earliest in the nation. Bert also hired and trained nurse practitioners and physician assistants to care for patients in the ED and clinics, realizing their potential and the value of their contributions to patient care, years before others did.

The group of emergency physicians that Bert and Shelly assembled at Einstein/Jacobi in the 1970s included John Gallagher, Peter Moyer, Mark Henry, Gregg Husk, Paul Gennis, a young Wallace Carter, me, and several other EM pioneers. Bert instilled in all of us the importance of always placing patients first, providing quality medical education, standing up for what is right regardless of personal consequences, maintaining a sense of humor, and a love for life.

At Dr Bell’s funeral on October 7, the rabbi alluded to a description of the prophet Elijah, in describing Bert as a “holy troublemaker.” Bert Bell was a larger-than-life iconoclast whose name became an icon for graduate medical education reforms and whose patient care values will survive in future generations of physicians.

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