Sandra Sacks, MD, Receives UCLA Exceptional Physician Award

Sandra Sacks, MD, Receives UCLA Exceptional Physician Award 

Written by Lisa L. Lewis, MS

Sandra Sacks, MD wins Physician of Excellence Award

On May 30, DAPM’s Sandra Sacks, MD, was honored as one of three physicians to receive UCLA Health’s 2024 Exceptional Physician Award. The ceremony marked the return of the award after a five-year hiatus.

The awards are given to physicians who embody UCLA’s values of integrity, compassion, respect, excellence, and teamwork. As those who nominated Dr. Sacks wrote: “Dr. Sacks, you foster a culture of kindness within our healthcare system that inspires your colleagues to follow your lead. In a field where difficult decisions are the norm, your steadfast adherence to principles of integrity, respect, and teamwork ensure that your patients receive compassionate, personalized care and that your team operates in an environment of trust.”

The mid-day ceremony at Harman Gardens at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center began with remarks by Richard Azar, Chief Operating Officer of UCLA Health. In addition to the three Exceptional Physician awards, the ceremony included various other awards for physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals from the UCLA Health system. 

A Unique Population

Dr. Sacks, who is triple boarded in anesthesiology, pain medicine, and hospice and palliative care medicine, joined UCLA as a pain medicine fellow in 2018 and stayed on as faculty after graduation. She now works within the Hematology-Oncology Division and works exclusively with cancer patients. 

While cancer patients had previously been referred to the general chronic pain clinic, they’re actually “a different population of pain patients, often requiring a different approach to their care,” Dr. Sacks explained. “Cancer pain fluctuates quite frequently based on what treatments the patients are receiving. Their pain can improve with these treatments or worsen because of side effects. And of course, we always have to worry about whether there’s been progression of their underlying disease.”

In her view, one of the most valuable benefits she’s able to provide to patients is continuity of care. This includes counseling them on what to expect and what types of questions to ask, given that for many, this is their first major exposure to the healthcare system. 

“A lot of times, patients feel very lost and isolated, especially if all of the sudden they’re seeing ten different doctors from different specialties,” she said. “When they’re facing so much that’s unknown, and they don’t have a lot of control, giving them options for their pain management at least gives them a little bit more of a sense of peace with what they’re going through.”

Dr. Sacks sees patients throughout their cancer journey, starting from right after they’ve been diagnosed and following some patients until they transition to home hospice care and end-of-life. As part of the Hematology-Oncology Division, she’s able to see patients when they come to UCLA for their various oncologic appointments. “I get to collaborate with their oncologist in person, in real time,” she added.

Dr. Sacks’ relationship with the patient often extends to their support networks of friends and family members as well. These relationships become particularly important for patients facing end-of-life decisions. “It makes it a lot easier to have these sensitive discussions when we already have a trusting relationship we’ve built up over time,” she said.

Wellness for DAPM Fellows

As the Associate Program Director for the Pain Medicine Fellowship at UCLA, Dr. Sacks created a monthly wellness program that focuses on the fellows’ well-being and on the often-complex nature of working with chronic pain patients. “There can be a lot of psychosocial stressors that contribute to pain symptoms,” Dr. Sacks said. These meetings provide a confidential space for fellows to open up about challenging cases, and are also a time for them to focus on their own wellness, resilience, and coping mechanisms. Each session ends with a guided meditation.

Tremendous Recognition

Nominations for the Exceptional Physician Award were made by UCLA peers and colleagues, with the final selection determined by a committee that included leaders from the Dean’s Office at the David Geffen School of Medicine and from UCLA Health.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm about this award, because it highlights the clinicians,” said Robert Whittington, MD, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Mentorship, and Recognition in the David Geffen School of Medicine. “It’s tremendous that you’ve been recognized as one of the best.”

As Dr. Sacks summed up: “Even though my role is very different from my colleagues’ work in the OR, I’m very grateful to the department for always supporting me, and am humbled by the patients and families whose lives I get to be a part of. ”