Walter L. Erhardt, MD, FACS, shows the way with his many contributions to his field
Walter L. Erhardt, MD, FACS, is committed to providing excellence in surgery and excellence in the experience. As a leader and educator, he has set a great example for many.
For 27 years, Erhardt has maintained a private practice in Albany, Ga. The reasons he chose Albany were many: the desire for a private-practice opportunity; a location where he could practice the full scope of plastic surgery, not just a segment of the specialty; a warm climate; and his preference for a slower-paced community rather than a large metropolitan area.
Erhardt explains, “A solo practice had a greater appeal to me than a partnership or group practice. And while a smaller geographic market may appear difficult to succeed in, I haven’t experienced the typical challenges associated with being a solo practitioner in such an area.”
Erhardt is the director of his southern-style 1,600-square-foot practice. He maintains hospital staff privileges at both of Albany’s hospitals: Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and HCA Palmyra Medical Center. His aesthetic procedures are performed at the outpatient center at Phoebe Putney.
Erhardt’s practice is 75% aesthetic and 25% reconstructive. It consists of aesthetic and reconstructive breast surgery, aesthetic facial surgery, liposuction and abdominoplasty, facial reconstruction following cancer surgery, and cleft lip and palate surgery.
Education and Involvement
Erhardt firmly believes that education and involvement must be primary considerations for any developing practitioner. He graduated cum laude with his bachelor’s of science degree from Roanoke College in Salem, Va, in 1969, and he obtained his medical degree in 1973 from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville. He is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, and he is licensed to practice medicine in Georgia and Virginia.
Erhardt is a past president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), and he has held many other upper-level positions in the organization, including treasurer, vice president, and trustee. Currently, he serves as the chair of the Public Education Committee for the ASPS.
Erhardt is also active in the American Board of Plastic Surgery as a director and as the chair of the Written Examination Committee. He is a member of American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) and a fellow of the American Association of Plastic Surgery and the American College of Surgery.
He has served as the chief of surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery and Division of Plastic Surgery at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. He is the director of the CMS Plastic Surgery Clinic for Southwest Georgia. And he is a former editor of Plastic Surgery News.
Getting Started in Albany
Erhardt began practice before the press had made “plastic surgery” and “extreme makeover” household terms. In lieu of this sort of publicity, he lectured on various topics in plastic surgery to many organizations in his immediate community and the surrounding area. Through these efforts, he enhanced his credibility in the marketplace and developed referral relationships.
Today, the vast majority of Erhardt’s patients are referred by former and existing patients. Still others are referred by other physicians. He emphasizes, “The development of my practice came from referral relationships that were created, not from advertising vehicles.”
In fact, the practice’s greatest marketing efforts are dedicated to making every patient’s experience a good one. This involves the staff and the physician. Erhardt focused on finding the right staff members, creating a clear vision for the practice, and having all staff members involved in turning the vision into reality.
In his practice, the environment Erhardt has created for his patients offers relaxation and reduced stress. He goes the extra mile to address patient concerns. He contacts every patient the night before surgery to make sure that he or she is doing well and to ask if there are any questions. In addition, he likes to see every patient that he operates on in the office as an outpatient the next day to make sure that everything is going smoothly and to answer any questions.
He explains, “We take the time to make sure all the patient’s questions are answered. We go to great lengths to provide the patient with all the information that they will need to get ready for surgery, what to expect when having their surgery, and how to care for themselves after surgery. And that information is not just verbally provided but provided in written form as well. This makes the patient feel more comfortable that we are so thorough. I know that they are better informed with this approach.”
As a result of this caring attitude, many patients travel from other cities and even other countries to see Erhardt.
To keep up to date with consumers’ needs for information, Erhardt recently developed a Web strategy to provide educational information for people interested in plastic surgery. As part of his commitment to education on the Internet, he became an advisory-board member for www.yourplasticsurgeryguide.com. This venture has proven valuable for the practice as well. According to Erhardt, “Demonstrations of good will in every venue are important in plastic surgery.”
Keeping current for Erhardt also means being constantly dedicated to the interests of individuals. Whether the focus is patients’ interests, employee selection, facility requirements, or technology that helps patients obtain the best results, individual needs are most important.
The Catch-22 of Practicing Solo
One of the blessings—and one of the curses—of solo practice is that the physician is intimately involved with every aspect of the practice, whether it’s the adoption of some new innovation or technology or making practice-management decisions. Erhardt advises, “The best way to survive as a solo practitioner is to surround yourself with a trustworthy team on whom you can rely.”
Erhardt’s wife, Carolyn, has been involved in the practice since it was founded. Although she is not involved in day-to-day activities any longer, she still oversees accounts payable and many other business aspects of the practice.
Erhardt has also found it crucial to involve the patient as much as possible with regard to financing. For example, his reconstructive patients are involved in the third-party billing process from the outset. He asks patients to send a letter to their third-party administrator to request preapproval. He also spaces out the dates of reconstructive procedures, when possible, to ensure consistent funding for the practice so as to maintain profitability.
His decision to shift his surgeries from his own office-based surgery center to other facilities was critical. Initially, Erhardt had one of the first American Association for Accreditation of Ambu;latory Plastic Surgery Facilities–accredited in-office surgical facilities in Georgia, at a time when the concept was still fairly new. He found many advantages to having his own surgery facility, but he decided to close it to reduce overhead and stress.
Over the past 15 years, he has been operating in a local hospital’s outpatient center through a mutually beneficial business relationship.
The Importance of Technology
Erhardt believes that technology is critical in today’s environment. “There are many recent innovations that have improved the procedures we provide and have helped reduce patients’ downtime. With technology, it is important to be on the crest of the wave, but it does not drive the practice. Use technology; don’t have it use you.”
Procedure choices and education about procedure choices are equally important to Erhardt. Over the years, he has participated in several clinical trials to help establish the validity of products and technology. For example, Erhardt used silicone gel implants prior to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restrictions, and afterward he used them in selected cases as part of Inamed’s and Mentor’s conjoint study.
He says that the recent FDA re-approval of silicone presents greater opportunities for patients.
“One size never fits all, and one choice in the type of breast implant can’t provide every woman with the optimal result from breast-augmentation surgery, either. Having the option to discuss with patients the opportunity to use a silicone implant will now give surgeons the option to better tailor the operation to fit the patient’s desires and anatomy.”
Erhardt is also cautious about introducing new procedures and technology into the practice. He adds, “Silicone im;plants have different properties from saline implants. These properties must be considered when planning and using silicone-filled implants in breast surgery. For;tun;ately, the implant manufacturers and both major plastic surgery organizations [ASPS and ASAPS] have created opportunities to learn about implants and how to use them effectively and safely.”
Today, a significant portion of his practice is dedicated to breast surgery. He also believes in dedicating a portion of the practice to breast reconstruction following mastectomy. He performs a significant amount of facial surgery, including coronoplasty, both open and endoscopic, as well as other facial-rejuvenation procedures.
A Leader From the Start
Erhardt is by any definition a dedicated leader in plastic surgery. From his lectures in his local community to offices held in the plastic surgery community, he is a true mentor for many.
He began to volunteer with the ASPS as the chair of the Young Plastic Surgeons Committee when he started to practice many years ago. And, although he is no longer a “young plastic surgeon,” this year at ASPS’s annual meeting in San Francisco he received the Young Plastic Surgeons’ “Young at Heart” award for his support and mentoring to plastic surgeons in the early years of their practices.
Erhardt has been involved in several medical missions to India and El Salvador. He has presented lectures on a broad range of topics in plastic surgery, including aesthetic and reconstructive breast surgery; concepts of beauty and aesthetic surgery; facial and body aesthetic surgery; facial trauma and seat-belt awareness; burn treatment; facial reconstruction following skin cancer; and practice-management issues such as practice productivity, developing an aesthetic surgery center of excellence at a hospital, and CPT coding for reconstructive plastic surgery.
Erhardt’s wish is for plastic surgery to continue to be very rewarding both professionally and personally, “I can’t think of anything I want to do more than practice plastic surgery in the future. It has been and continues to be the thrust of my professional life.”
Lesley Ranft is a contributing writer for Plastic Surgery Products. For additional information, please contact [email protected]
For many years, the family has been collecting Disney-animation artwork. It has been something that the entire family has shared in, and both daughters have several pieces of artwork. The classic Disney animated features such as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Cinderella have some wonderfully rich animation and, as a result, they are some of the family’s favorites.
They enjoy the pencil drawings that are created first. It is from the pencil drawings that the older animation cels were created. Erhardt says, “This is a lost art form now—everything today is created on computers—but the artwork that was created for the Disney classics in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is quite striking if you take the time to look at the individual pieces that were generated as the movie was made.”
Erhardt’s younger daughter, Abbie, a recent Auburn University graduate, teaches dancing, including ballet, tap, pointe, and jazz. Trish, the older daughter, fittingly, works for Disney in Orlando, Fla. —LR