VA has an exceptionally talented team of outstanding employees. We would like you to meet them, starting with our dedicated staff of doctors. We will be introducing an eminent doctor in a continuing feature: VA’s Top Doctors. 

We continue our series with Dr. James Michelson, associate chief of primary care at VA San Diego.

When Air Force Veteran Jack Rathburn thinks about excellent health care, little things set good doctors apart from great doctors.

“So many doctors now are in a rush and I love a doctor who’s not,” he said. “I want someone who’s easy going and great to talk to and has a great bedside manner.”

For him, that doctor is Dr. James Michelson, the associate chief of primary care at VA San Diego Healthcare System. Rathburn has seen Michelsen since enrolling for VA health care in 2007 and the secret to this longstanding relationship is in the doctor’s demeanor.

“Dr. Michelson reminds me of those doctors from 50 years ago where they sit down and talk to you and are like your best friend and take care of everything,” Rathburn said. “And, he always gets back to you in a timely manner, even on a Saturday.”

Doctor running check up on patient.

Dr. Michelsen examines a patient during a medical examination in July.

According to Michelsen, timeliness is the key to quality health care and it’s been something he’s focused on since joining the VA as a physician in 2000. He worked at other local private hospitals prior to his current position but he finds his work with Veterans to be the most comforting and rewarding.

“I love working with those who served our country. It’s one of the main reasons for my coming to the VA,” he said. “My mother also served as a career nurse for VA, so it’s very familiar to me and also where I’m most comfortable working with patients.”

Over the years, one of Michelsen’s priorities has been to focus on the things Veterans care about the most: improving the patient experience which includes expanding clinical access and improving coordination with interdisciplinary primary care teams, known as PACT. While PACT meets patients’ needs, patient access to care rises to the top for Michelsen.

“I think very much about what I would want as a patient and I try to bring that experience to the Veterans I serve,” he says. “I also think about what VA’s needs are and what my needs are as a doctor regarding outcomes. You have to find that fine line where you can satisfy all three areas and one of the keys to that is to make sure you spend time with patients and answer all of their questions.”

With every appointment, there’s a limited time providers can spend with patients, but part of the trick according to Michelsen is to be efficient with your time as a doctor.

“If I have a half an hour during a typical appointment, I will spend a majority of that time with my patient and I will try to involve them with some of my work as well to be as efficient as I can,” Michelsen says. “Beyond that, we get many phone calls and emails from our Veterans and we’ll always try to respond to them in a timely manner outside of appointment times. We have time built in for that but we’ll also spend the extra time outside of work to answer their questions outside of visits. Many of our patients enjoy that, especially if they have to drive long distances for appointments and have to fight traffic and search for parking.”

“You can win awards and be published in medical journals, but as a doctor, you can’t forget what makes all the difference,” said Dr. Robert Smith, chief of staff and acting director at San Diego. “The great care you provide to your patients is what ultimately matters.”

While there have been many notable accomplishments during his career, it’s these little things that resonate most between Dr. Michelsen and his patients.

About the Author: Christopher Menzie is the Public Affairs Specialist at VA San Diego.

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Published on Sep. 27, 2016

Estimated reading time is 3.5 min.

Views to date: 158


  1. Cathie Zimmerman October 2, 2016 at 1:34 am

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if more providers were like this?! My provider in Phoenix. AZ is NOT AT ALL like this. My first visit to meet her, I was shown to a dirty room by her where she told me to wait with an talking until she was ready. 0k, I’m an easy-going friendly person. So, I wait. Five to ten minutes later she turns to me and says “Your medications are not working for you. I’m taking you off this and that.” Completely blown away, I told her I had just spent 2 months getting on the right doses on that medication with a prior provider. She had just spent 5-10 minutes in the same room with me, not speaking to me and had NO idea what was in my chart or why I was there. I was there to tell her at meds were adjusted great and to request an adaptive sports referral so I could get involved/connected to sports! It haven’t been able to play sports in 15 years. With my meds good – now I could. Instead I was sent to the chronic pain psych doc, pharmacist and nurse practitioner.Each person I had to practically plead my case to. Thankfully I was able to keep the adjustment and eventually was able to meet with the adaptive sports coordinator. She was just as surprised as I was. After, I read the notes the “Dr.” put in my file. Not only did she lie, and cherry pick my comments but also brought my sexual orientation into my file? How is that relevant? How am I supposed to trust this woman with my healthcare concerns and needs?? My point is that it would be great to increase the number of competent providers who want to work with us Veterans. Out of about 6 providers in 4 years only ONE acted like Dr. Michelson. It would be awesome for his actions to be the standard and not the exception.

    Wow-I guess I had to get that off my chest!

  2. James L Pratt October 1, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    This article is certinly “NOT” Anything like the Dr I drew , when My Dr. retired from Port Charlotte, Fl Clinic.
    As my Doctors replacement is totally the reverse of this article. I have not had a pain free day in 30 yrs with “CHRONIC” low back pain after four failed Lubar Back Surguries 1984/5/6/and 7, I believe. I was order off Pain meds, and had to go to the civilian sector to get pain relief. My new Doctor talked down to me so much that I lost a faith in hhis ability to treat me. Honestly. Thanks for this Site, It is renewing my trust in the VA after years of being pushed all round the VA Medical system without resauloving my health ISSUE of “CHONIC INTRACTABLE NONMALIGNATE PAIN” For the last 30 yrs. I’ve not had a pain few day. James L. Pratt US Navy Exp/Sat Diver US Navy Experimental Diving Unit 1965/70

  3. Jack S Lewis September 30, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    I believe the drs. are put in a strain and are not able to spend quality time with patients in the Sonny Montgomery VA hospital in Jackson Ms. I never really feel satisfied because the their load is so heavy they never have time to get to know us as people, but only as another number in the quest of reaching a quota for the allotted time that work day.
    More drs. would help lighten the load and improve quality of service.

  4. Carl Ernest Gebhardt September 30, 2016 at 11:22 am


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