Providing Patients With Options Keeps Physician Recharged

When Miles Varn was at teenager, his father took the family on a trip to Haiti, where the father performed volunteer dental work. The experience set Varn on a path to a career bridging the gap between patients and physicians.

When Miles Varn was 10 years old, his father, an oral surgeon, took the family on a trip in a Winnebago—a one-month journey through some of the more rural communities in Mexico to perform volunteer dental work.

Four years later, Varn’s father took the family on a trip to Haiti, where he worked in a dental clinic. Varn assisted his father at the clinic, getting some hands-on training while learning a valuable lesson in life.

“I was at an age where I wanted this, and I wanted that,” Varn recalls. “But [the trip to Haiti] was such a dramatic experience that when I came home I didn’t really want anything. I felt like I had more than I deserved, and certainly more than I needed.”

Varn credits his parents for providing that experience, and the impetus for a successful career in medicine.

Making an Impact

Today, Varn serves as the chief medical officer for PinnacleCare, an organization that helps people with medical decisions and often acts as a liaison with doctors. But his journey to this point began during a 15-year career as an emergency physician at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.

During those years Varn lived on an island in the Chesapeake Bay that was serviced only by a small causeway. He quickly became the go-to person when locals would injure themselves.

“It was a great way of practicing medicine,” Varn says. “There was no paperwork, and the best reward for me was a thank you note, sometimes a bottle of wine. And then that evolved into helping people (improve) their access. They relied on me as someone who knew the system.”

Varn does the same work today, only on a much larger scale. He says the work he’s doing at PinnacleCare is that same small community type of experience, where he’s able to get to know the patient, and help them get to the right place at the right time.

“It was really remarkable when I first interviewed to see that I could do that small town sort of practice on a much bigger scale,” Varn explains. “There are hundreds of thousands of people who have access to our services. And our goal is to maximize the opportunity for a successful outcome.”

Medical Advances

One of Varn’s responsibilities at PinnacleCare is bringing new medical advances to his team. For example, he points to genomic and proteomic markers as technologic tools that enable more scientific decision-making regarding care.

“If you have those markers done, the oncologist or surgeon can choose a therapy that’s more targeted,” Varn explains. “Without that, it’s really either standard therapy, or second and third line therapy, and then you’re just throwing darts.”

Varn also indicates the importance of utilizing the intellectual capital side of healthcare; the experienced clinicians and pathologists who have seen and researched more about a certain disease. Bringing patients, and sometimes tissue samples, for second and third opinions often results in a different diagnosis and a different treatment plan—sometimes with dramatic impact.

“One woman was scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy,” Varn recalls. “We took her for a second opinion, and the pathologist disagreed with the original pathology reading. So we sent the slides to another place and they also felt that it wasn’t cancer. So now you have a woman who was about to have surgery, to be diagnosed with a disease that requires all kinds of surveillance of a lifetime. And now doesn’t have cancer. Doesn’t need to have the treatment that was recommended. So, some of the changes are dramatic, and some are simple, but you have a better therapy with fewer side effects.”

On a Fast Track

When he’s not helping people navigate the healthcare system, Varn can be found navigating the waters along the east coast as a participant in offshore yacht racing. He has participated in 6 Annapolis-to-Newport, R.I. races, as well as 6 Newport-to-Bermuda races.

“[Newport to Bermuda] is a great distance for a race, but it’s also an enjoyable experience,” Varn says.

If the yacht racing isn't challenging enough, Varn also completes in his share of triathlons. He did his first in 1987 while in medical school, then took a long break. Eventually he encouraged his wife, who he calls “an ultra-fast runner,” to try her hand at a triathlon. The success she experienced prompted Varn to participate in 2 half Ironman triathlons. All went well and he was considering scaling things back when his wife participated in a full Ironman triathlon.

“It was so inspiring that I decided I couldn’t go through life without doing at least one more Ironman,” Varn says. “So that’s what I’m training for, next October, on the eastern shore of Maryland.”

Both athletic endeavors, he says, help to recharge his batteries and keep him focused on the medical side of his life.

“With offshore yacht racing, you get out in the ocean, sometimes it’s dead calm and it’s a starry night,” Varn explains. “It’s the most amazing scene, just sort of calm and brightness. And other times it’s incredibly rough. You freeze to death and you feel like you’re holding on for dear life. And both of those experiences are very unique. Not a lot of people get to experience the ocean at it’s best and it’s worst.”

Triathlon training, on the other hand, is more of a slow, constant recharging that delivers a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment.

“It takes a lot of focused training.”

Rewarding Options

Varn says that the work he does at PinnacleCare, often bringing unique innovations to people in dire need, is very satisfying.

“We’ve had cases where a very good facility in the local area had run out of options,” he says. “To be able to find an effective option for that patient that they never would have found on their own is incredibly rewarding.”

And Varn says it doesn’t matter who the patient is—a billionaire client or an individual who sweeps the floors of an office building at night.

“Every single one of those experiences where we change someone’s life that dramatically keeps me recharged.”