From Aspirational Shock Jock to Real-World Medical Doc: James Kennedy’s Journey

Late Career Change: Never too late to Reinvent Yourself

EDITOR’S NOTE: In recognition of National Doctors’ Day, coming up at the end of the month, starting Monday, March 25, MedLearn Media will be honoring five individuals with profiles of their fine work in the field of healthcare and medicine. Today’s honoree is James S. Kennedy, MD.

Wearing earphones, seated on a swivel chair next to a wall-mounted stack of vinyl LPs, gingerly moving knobs on a Gates control panel, a young Jim Kennedy’s fertile imagination had him at a 100,000-watt FM progressive album rock radio station, nodding his head to music blaring from huge studio speakers. The music was hypnotic. It was James Gang followed by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, the Band, early Genesis, and deep tracks from the Beatles’ White Album.

Nonetheless, Kennedy, at age 17, had still decided to pursue a medical education, with the hopes of “attaining a medical degree,” he recently told RACmonitor.

“My father also encouraged me to do so, even though my dream career aspiration was to be the Real Don Steele’s or Howard Stern’s competitor on a station playing the great progressive rock,” Kennedy said.

The young Kennedy even already had a keen sense of the importance of public service. He organized a voter registration drive for his fellow high-school seniors in Oak Ridge, Tenn. in 1971, the same year the nation witnessed passage of 26th Amendment, giving voting rights to those 18 years of age and older.

“I witnessed the practice of medicine as a public service and trust and, as such, it was attractive to me,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he viewed the practice of medicine as an admirable goal to aspire to when he entered the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1972 – and one he could make a decent living at, even though the hours were long and erratic. 

Kennedy succeeded in doing so in Franklin, Tenn. Where he practiced traditional inpatient, outpatient, and nursing home internal medicine (before there were hospitalists), served at the county medical examiner, led the implementation of his county’s emergency 911 service along with a county-wide centralized dispatch (which still stands today), and advocated Vanderbilt’s extension into his community before he transitioned away in 1998 due to severe major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that required five months of inpatient psychiatric care and two years of intensive outpatient care for what is labeled today as “burnout”. 

Soon thereafter, Kennedy began an administrative medicine career by mastering ICD-9-CM (now ICD-10-CM/PCS) and developing clinical documentation and coding integrity (CDI) principles that he applied in a hospital turnaround consulting practice (e.g., safety-net hospitals) in Oakland, Honolulu; Los Angeles, and Memphis. 

“I still ‘practice’ in that I still read my JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, and other journals every week, scour every new issue of the Coding Clinic for ICD-10-CM/PCS to see if they published answers to his questions, consult with major academic medical centers, and advocate clinical principles of ICD-10-CM/PCS coding and risk-adjustment with physicians, coders, supporting personnel, and medical informaticists nationwide,” Kennedy said, adding that he does not provide direct patient care or other services one would construe as the practice of medicine.

Today, Kennedy is also an editorial contributor to ICD10monitor and often serves as a guest cohost for the Internet radio broadcast produced by ICD10monitor, Talk Ten Tuesdays. Kennedy is the founder and president of his own consulting practice, CDIMD-Physician Champions, located in Smyrna, Tenn.

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Chuck Buck

Chuck Buck is the publisher of RACmonitor and is the program host and executive producer of Monitor Monday.

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