Leaders in Clinical Excellence Awards

Patricia and William L. Watson Jr., M.D. Award for Excellence in Clinical Medicine

This award, UT Southwestern’s highest honor in clinical care, recognizes a UT Southwestern clinician who exemplifies excellence in patient care and is a leader in advancing clinical innovation. It honors a faculty member who has had a profound impact on patients, students, trainees, and colleagues through the quality of his or her clinical work.

The Watson Award recipient is chosen by a select committee of physician leaders who review nominations. All members of the UT Southwestern community are welcome to submit a nomination.

See distinguished past winners

The 2023 Winner:

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Karen J. Kowalske, M.D.

Professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

In her 33-plus years at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Karen Kowalske, a physiatrist, has had a profound impact on the treatment of burn patients in North Texas.

Described by one nominator as a “fierce advocate” for her specialty, Dr. Kowalske works with patients requiring a wide range of long-term rehabilitative care, from those suffering from post-polio syndrome decades after their initial disease to patients with traumatic brain injuries. Her special expertise is in the treatment of catastrophic injuries, particularly among burn patients, for which she has earned a national reputation.

“Dr. Kowalske is the heart and soul of the burn rehabilitation program, and in this capacity she has positively impacted thousands of burn patients over the years. Patients and families love Dr. Kowalske because she takes complete ownership of her patients and will do anything for them,” one nominator wrote.

Another nominator said Dr. Kowalske is not just concerned with her patients’ physical issues, but with their emotional health and their ability to function in the world as well.

“She is also unafraid to be ‘real’ with patients and get them to get on board with the care they need,” a nominator added.

Among her colleagues, Dr. Kowalske is invaluable as a leader, a mentor, and a source of knowledge.

“She has had a life-changing impact on countless faculty members, fellows, residents, and students whom she has mentored through almost three decades at UT Southwestern. Speaking personally, I know that I would not be a UTSW employee today were it not for Karen,” a nominator stated.

A physician who regularly seeks Dr. Kowalske for clinical and professional advice and praises her teaching methods said they are “in debt to her in a way that is difficult to describe.”

Fellow clinicians note that Dr. Kowalske’s expertise in the field is vast, and she has the “knowledge and the willingness” to handle any issues that arise.

In one example, a colleague described how Dr. Kowalske passionately advocated for expanded access to prosthetics, which led to the creation of a program for unfunded patients with amputations. “Our prosthetics program would not be live today without Dr. Kowalske’s leadership. She has been instrumental throughout the entire process, from ideation to implementation.”

Additionally, Dr. Kowalske’s involvement with burn patients of all ages extends far beyond their hospital stays. She runs an outpatient clinic, coordinating care at multiple locations. Children she has treated are delighted when they see her again as a volunteer at Parkland’s Camp I-Thonka-Chi in Meridian, Texas, which is for those who have experienced severe burns.

“Her patients love her, and the feeling is mutual,” a nominator wrote.

Always cognizant of the psychological issues associated with burns, Dr. Kowalske advocated strongly for a laser therapy program to reduce scarring. That treatment is now available to patients.

Research also has been a key part of Dr. Kowalske’s leadership in the world of burn treatment. She is the Principal Investigator for the North Texas Burn Rehabilitation Model System sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, part of the U.S. Department of Education. She has published more than 110 peer-reviewed articles and abstracts, many of which are related to burn care, and delivered more than 90 lectures nationally and internationally.

Dr. Kowalske has had a significant impact on UT Southwestern’s Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, elevating it from one of the smallest departments at the institution to a nationally recognized leader in clinical treatment, research, and education. The Department now regularly makes the U.S. News & World Report list of top programs in the country.

In the wider arena, Dr. Kowalske is currently serving a two-year term as President of the Association of Academic Physiatrists. She is active in several national and international associations, including serving in 2022 on the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command Military Burn Research Programmatic Review Panel. Her past leadership roles include serving as Chair of the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation from 2013 to 2016.

She is an Associate Editor for the field’s leading textbook and has written numerous chapters for a variety of textbooks on subjects ranging from amputation care to the role of hyperbaric oxygen in wound healing.

She is a member of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the American Burn Association, and has contributed to several journals, including Burns and the Journal of Burn Care & Rehabilitation, as a guest editor.

Dr. Kowalske joined the faculty of UT Southwestern Medical Center in 1990 after earning her medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine and completing her internship in internal medicine and residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She is certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and has a subspecialty certification in brain-injury medicine. She served as Chair of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at UTSW from 1999-2014.

In her words: Receiving the Watson Award is one of the highest honors of my career. Being a good clinician requires being surrounded by a good team, and I feel blessed to have an outstanding group of collaborators. UT Southwestern nurtures this environment by recruiting and developing the best at every level. From the Medical Office Assistants and support staff to the President of UT Southwestern, we work together to achieve the very best outcomes for patients. I am very grateful to be a part of this success.

Dr. Kowalske holds the Charles and Peggy Galvin Professorship in Physical Medicine.

Leaders in Clinical Excellence video: Dr. Karen Kowalske