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Change is like the ocean. It’s unpredictable and constant, pushing and pulling at stubborn shorelines while unfurling new waves that crest and crash, seemingly at will.

This ever-evolving state of being is something Dr. Peter McGough knows all too well. It’s what he learned to embrace while growing up in California among a family of surfers, and it’s what he’s used to propel his work as medical director of UW Neighborhood Clinics for the past 16 years.

Now, after 37 years practicing medicine, McGough plans to catch the next big wave: retirement.


McGough (right) and his brother surfed while growing up in California.

Embracing a California state of mind

The ocean has always played a part in McGough’s life. As a high schooler in Southern California, he and his entire family surfed the waters of the Pacific Ocean. And as an undergrad at the University of California San Diego, he studied the many facets of the marine world while pursuing an oceanography degree. But just as the waves have a mind of their own, so too did his career path.

“It was my third year in college, and I had a class on endocrinology,” he recalls. “I was completely starstruck — it was like watching someone take a clock apart and put it back together.”

So McGough did what any California-bred kid might — he rode the wave.

Working as a technician at the local veterans affairs hospital, McGough was able to interact with patients in the wards and help doctors with their research on cholesterol and lipid metabolism. Eventually, after encouragement from the physicians working with him, he applied for medical school at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

When McGough’s parents — a bartender and an artist — learned that he was planning to pursue a career in medicine, though, they had some concerns.

“They were kind of like, ‘Why would you do that?’” McGough recalls. “No one in my family had ever finished college, and while they were pleased that I was doing well in school, they saw that medicine was really very, very hard work.”

In the end, his parents were right. A career in medicine was definitely hard work, but McGough wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They eventually came around,” he says. “They saw that I just really enjoyed the heck out of it.”

Making waves in the Pacific Northwest

With his parents’ approval and a medical degree in tow, McGough made his way up the coast to Seattle for his residency. From there, he spent the next two decades following his new calling. He worked with patients as a family medicine doctor, consulted in healthcare business development and served as a clinical medical director.

Then in 2002, McGough brought his talents to UW Medicine. Less than a year later, he became the medical director of UW Medicine Neighborhood Clinics.

“It’s been fun to watch the neighborhood clinics grow,” he says. “When I came on board, there were nine clinics. Now there are 15, plus our urgent care sites.”

During his 16 years as medical director, McGough has focused on evolving what exactly primary care is and advocating for new ways to make healthcare more accessible, effective and affordable.

Early on, he introduced the idea of team care to help make primary care more efficient. The previous clinic standard used to be the dyad, where the primary care provider and medical assistant took care of responsibilities for their patients from top to bottom. With McGough’s new model, all clinical staff share the load in supporting the delivery of care to everyone’s patients.

From there, McGough worked on enhancing the quality and type of care that patients receive. This meant integrating behavioral health to increase access to mental health care, introducing patient-centered treatment approaches to improve outcomes for those living with chronic conditions and promoting telehealth as a way to provide more convenient, less expensive options for patients.


“The challenge is you can’t just look at what you’re doing now and how you can do it faster and better,” McGough says. “Rather than how to do things better, it’s how to do better things.”


Pursuing change for the better

Influencing meaningful change isn’t always easy, McGough admits, especially in the field of medicine.

“Physicians are creatures of habit,” he says. “When someone tries to change something that we’re used to, we push back really hard.”

Yet during his time at UW Medicine, McGough has seen the tide turn from resisting change to embracing innovation — all in pursuit of improving care for patients.

“UW Medicine has always been known for its commitment to primary care and its support of primary care,” he says. “It’s essential to any health system and, in order to remain successful, primary care has to change and improve itself regularly. You can’t just create a static system and leave it that way for decades. You have to be saying what are the opportunities for improvement.”

McGough hopes his efforts of championing primary care and embracing change continue to ripple throughout UW Medicine in the future. For now, though, he’s looking forward to all the changes that retirement will bring.

He and his wife, Colleen, are going to travel, first to Mexico and then to France. After that, McGough plans on taking walks early in the morning, heading out on day hikes, writing and playing guitar.

“Change is good, change is a constant and change is something that we need to embrace,” he says. “In retirement, I’m looking forward to just having more freedom during the day.”


McGough and his wife, Colleen, “training for retirement.”

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