If laughter is the best medicine than Dr. Gregory Bentz is a fully-stocked pharmacy. When asked how he got his new job, Bentz laughed.
"It's like how you get to be a department chair," he said. "They look around the room and see who has the most gray hair."
On Jan. 1 Bentz became the chief medical officer for Inova Loudoun Hospital, a position that took him away from his 16-year private practice in Sterling.
"When this opportunity arose I knew I had to take it," he said.
Before taking the position, Bentz worked at the hospital in case management as a physician advisor, something he worked in between seeing his own patients in the morning and evenings.
"Case management is about are we doing the right thing for the right patient in the right place at the right time?" he said. "Is there anything we are doing that could be done elsewhere?"
IN THE FEW years since Bentz started as a physician advisor in 2004, it became clear that the hospital needed a chief medical officer to centralize case management.
"These are positions that are becoming more commonplace," Randy Kelley, chief executive officer of the hospital, said. "The key is building a good relationship between the medical staff and the hospital."
When Bentz began his private practice in 1991 there were 180 people on the medical staff, he said. Now there are more than 660, making communication even more important, Kelley said.
"The most important part is that the communication occurs," he said. "We have physicians that don't regularly appear at the hospital. It is important that the doctor feels engaged and involved in what's going on at the hospital."
"The hospital has their guy, me, and the medical staff has their guy, [Chief of Staff] Dr. [Kevin] O'Connor," Bentz said. "If those two people can see eye to eye, then great things can happen for the hospital."
Kelly said the fact that Bentz worked in the hospital both as a physician and as a physician advisor made him a natural choice for chief medical officer.
"As soon as I came here, I could see that Dr. Bentz was well regarded. A lot of the medical staff tell me when Dr. Bentz says something, you need to pay attention," he said. "Having been in private practice, he understands what it means to be a physician today."
Bentz said he does "feel the pain" the hospital's doctors are going through, the long hours and maximum number of patients, but he believes that a lot can be accomplished simply by picking up the phone and talking someone "M.D. to M.D."
"It's just me," he said. "No one died and left me the sole repository for medicine. There are guys on this staff who have forgotten more about medicine than I have ever learned, but family medicine has given me the ability to know a little bit about a lot of things. That really helps with this position."
AS MUCH AS Bentz has stood in the shoes of practicing physicians, the road he took to Inova was not a typical one.
One of seven children growing up in Ohio, Bentz was the first person in his family to attend college, receiving his bachelor's degree in biology from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania in 1967. Immediately after graduating from college, Bentz moved back to Ohio and began attending graduate school at Kent State University. He received his master's in biology with a focus on botany in 1969.
"I am one of those guys who just loves the natural world and the diversity that is out there," he said.
After graduating from Kent State, Bentz spent three years in the military, but said he was never sent to Vietnam.
"There are many Vietnam veterans, but I am not one of them," he said.
When he was released from the military, Bentz moved back to Pennsylvania. He received his doctorate in biology from the University of Pittsburgh, studying vertebrate morphology, the study of the structure and function of animals with backbones.
"There are no gaps in my history," Bentz said about his continuous education. "Every day in my life is accounted for."
Kelly said that Bentz's background will only give him more depth as an administrator.
"The fact that is comes with an academic background and a military background, that's only a benefit to the hospital," he said.
BENTZ FINALLY headed to Washington, D.C., in 1976, doing his post-doctoral work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where he conducted research for the institution.
"I am the world's authority on the anatomy of hummingbirds," Bentz said.
After spending two years at the Smithsonian, Bentz became a professor at Mount Vernon College in the district, a small women's college that has since been acquired by George Washington University.
"It was a great school, perfect for me," Bentz said.
By 1985, at the age of 40, Bentz had become chair of the college's math and science department, received his tenure and was promoted to associate professor. But, he said, he was not making enough money to live on. So Bentz decided on a career change and began looking into medical school. He soon found, however, it was not going to be easy.
"Back then no one took [students] that old," he said.
Having been turned down or discouraged by the local universities, Bentz talked to one of his friends from his doctorate program, who told Bentz he was receiving his medical degree in Mexico. The medical school, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad in Juarez, located just over the border from El Paso, Texas, only took students who had already received one doctorate degree. When his friend told him the entire curriculum was taught in Spanish, Bentz was apprehensive.
"Then he said the three words that convinced me," Bentz said. "He said, 'I did it.'"
Having never spoken a word of Spanish, Bentz made one more phone call before he went to El Paso.
"I called my father," Bentz said, "and I asked him, 'Does life begin at 40? Is that true?' And he said yes."
So Bentz packed his car and his future wife, Anne, who would teach in El Paso while he went to school in Mexico and headed for Texas.
"It was certainly different," he said of his medical school. "I spent about six weeks with my mouth open."
AFTER THREE YEARS in Texas, Bentz graduated from school, but immediately faced another obstacle, the FMGEMS, or Foreign Medical Graduates Examination in Medical Sciences. The test was designed to determine if doctors with degrees from foreign medical schools would be able to practice medicine in the U.S.
"When I went to school there was a perceived physician glut," Bentz said. "The test had a 12 to 15 percent pass rate."
Bentz, however, passed the test and immediately headed back to Virginia, doing his residency in family medicine at Eastern Virginia Graduate School of Medicine in Norfolk.
In 1991, following his residency, Bentz moved to Northern Virginia and set up his private practice in Sterling. He was encouraged by his wife to avoid joining a medical group.
"She said, 'If you ever think you are going to have your own practice, start it now, or you'll be trying to start it when you are 50,'" he said. "Once again my wife was right."
For the next 16 years Bentz and his wife ran what he calls a "mom and pop" doctor's office, where patients would often see his children playing on the floor in the waiting area and where his wife learned medicine "by the seat of her pants."
"For 16 years, when you walked into my office, you knew who you were going to see," he said.
IT IS THE patients that Bentz said he misses the most about private practice, but he is happy that his new position allows him to interact with new ones, during administrative rounds.
"Every day I get a print out of every person in the hospital, who their doctor is, what their diagnosis is and the length of their stay," he said. "I do go around and check on new patients, see how they are doing."
On his desk Bentz plans to place a sign that says "Everyone Wins" because that's what he believes is behind the job of a chief medical officer.
"Everyone gets a little bit of what they want and the hospital's interests are being met as well," he said.
The challenge, he said, is that doctors are extremely intelligent people, who are self-assured of themselves and medicine.
"It is hard to get 600 doctors to sign on to the long-term goals of the hospital and to demonstrate to them why it is in their best interests as well," he said.
Kelley said that Bentz's dedication to being out among the doctors and his commitment to quality and safety will serve Inova Loudoun well in the coming years.
"Nothing takes the place of getting out there and doing it every day," Kelley said. "And he is very interested in making sure we do a great job in the care that we give and that we meet the needs of our patients."
OUTSIDE OF the hospital, Bentz's wife serves as his support, just as she did when he was first starting his medical career.
"She has a master's in education," he said. "She is excited to start using it again, since I drafted her into the medical field."
Bentz also takes pride in his five children, ranging in age from 27 to 13. The license plate on his car reads 3XX2XY, in honor of his three sons and two daughters. His oldest daughter is a biologist, something she told him she got from the wildflower walks and science talks he used to give when they were young.
"I am the luckiest guy in the world," he said. "If it all falls apart, I'm good."