Chattanooga Physician Spotlight: R. Phillip Burns, MD
Chattanooga Physician Spotlight: R. Phillip Burns, MD
Considering his reputation for being passionate about medical education, it should come as little surprise that R. Phillip Burns, MD, began receiving serious teachings from his parents at an early age.

The teaching from his parents wasn’t related to medicine – it dealt with cattle and farming. But it does provide Burns with an indelible memory, and it provides to others some insight into Burns. The story says that as early as nine years old, it was clear this young boy from Pikeville, Tenn., was going to be a high achiever.

“I’ve been in cattle since I was nine years old, and I owned one thing then, which was a horse,” said  Burns, who has been chair of the Department of Surgery for the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Chattanooga, for more than 30 years. “I mortgaged that horse to buy two steers – that paid for the feed for them, too. My dad obviously went to the bank with me since I was so young, and he did co-sign the loan, but I got the loan. I showed those two steers and sold them, then I borrowed $1,500 and bought five. That might make it sound like I’m an outgoing person, but my parents realized I was shy.”

That shy boy who dreamt of being a cattle farmer instead chose a career in medicine and is a renowned surgeon and chairman of the board with University Surgical Associates. Burns has fashioned a career that could fill pages and pages in a book, not that he would feel comfortable with being lauded in any way.

Burns was recently elected first vice-president elect of the American College of Surgeons. With more than 78,000 members and a sterling record for setting high standards for surgical education and practice, the ACS is among the most highly regarded professional organizations in medicine and Burns’ elected position is a prestigious one.

But when trying to explain the process of how it came about and what it means to him, Burns speaks a little – and then winces.

“I guess I’ve been involved in different forms of leadership positions through the years,” Burns said. “But I hate to use the word ‘leadership.’

“It’s a big honor, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice notes and e-mails. My response is that I have truly mastered the art of how to stand on other people’s shoulders. That’s worked well for me.”

Named by the Tennessee Medical Association as its Outstanding Physician of the Year in 2009 for his contributions to medical education, Burns is clearly regarded for his leadership skills and knowledge of medicine and medical education. In the wake of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the American Council for Graduate Medical Education appointed Burns as a special site visitor to the surgical residency programs in Louisiana. He is a past president and past secretary-director of the prestigious Southeastern Surgical Congress; he also served as president of the Southern Surgical Association.

Burns is also a member of the select Halsted Society – named for the famed surgeon William Stewart Halsted – and the invitation-only organization maintains only 75 active members.

Never one to neglect his roots, Burns speaks proudly of the public education system he is a product of. He graduated from Bledsoe County High School, attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and graduated from medical school at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis. In 2003, the college named him an Outstanding Alumnus.

After internship and residency training in Memphis, as well as two years of service in the Air Force, Burns was appointed to the position of Chair of Surgery in Chattanooga in 1976, when he was only 33. The Baroness Foundation at Erlanger Medical Center named him the hospital’s Outstanding Physician of the Year in 2007, and Burns has certainly left an imprint there. He was among the select group of physicians who lobbied the state for official trauma center designation for hospitals – a sea change that has since had an incalculable effect on saving the lives of trauma patients – and Erlanger is one of Tennessee’s Level I trauma centers.

Even with his commitments to medical educations and medical administration, Burns is still an active practicing surgeon. He considers himself a general surgeon first and foremost and has practiced throughout the surgical spectrum – from transplants to trauma to vascular surgery – but he is now best known for specializing in breast surgery and advanced laparoscopic surgery.

“I still consider myself a general surgeon, but I have begun to focus on breast work – one reason is I had to focus on something as a way to control my schedule,” Burns said. “Back when I was doing everything in surgery, we had a smaller staff and we didn’t need to do a lot of strategic planning. Now we have a very large practice, and it takes a lot of time to manage that. It’s not easy to be on call and be up all night and do all the things I need to do.”

Medicine always comes first for Burns, but he did not leave behind cattle farming. He and his wife, Gayanne, own a large farm that routinely has between 750 and 1,000 head of cattle. The Burns family farm specializes in Herefords, and it is serious business – their show cattle have the prize-winning ribbons to prove it. The boy who went to the bank at nine to become a cattle farmer is still a big part of the renowned surgeon.

“We don’t have a small farming operation,” Burns said, “and I work the farm every day that I’m not here. I’ve got a truckload of my own tools and junk and stuff – I’m a fix-it kind of person – and I do all the painting; we’ve got a lot of barns. My son has a master’s degree in reproductive physiology, and he runs the farm. He’s a cowboy first. We’re not getting rich at it, but it’s in our blood. It runs in our blood, and my son probably couldn’t dodge the gene.

“It’s not a hobby. When I go up there and work, I’m not just driving around and waving at folks.”

And medicine, too, is in the Burns blood. Just prior to a one-hour conversation to talk about his career and the new ACS position, Burns had spent the day performing four breast surgeries. These women needed his help, he said, and he felt blessed to be able to provide it. No matter how much the farm calls to him, Burns doesn’t think yet of retiring to cattle farming only.


“This isn’t something original to me, but I’ve heard it said that when you retire, you should enjoy doing something you like every day,” Burns said. “If that’s the case, then I’ve been retired for several years. I like what I do in both worlds. They’re very different, but people are people.

“Like today: I’ve had a wonderful day. These women need care, and I was blessed to be able to do that. And I had a resident who was with me, a fantastic young man, and I had medical students with me. It’s been a fantastic day. It’s a good life. Who could ask for more? I’m so fortunate and blessed when compared to other people.”

And then Burns said his goodbyes. He wasn’t going home yet, but back to the hospital to see a couple of patients, though not as their doctor.

“They’re friends,” Burns said, “and I just want to check in on them.”