Dr. Clifford Ko: Surgeon, researcher, sommelier

UCLA Health’s chief of colon and rectal surgery extends his pursuit of knowledge and excellence beyond medicine.
Dr. Clifford Ko
Dr. Clifford Ko
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5 min read

Throughout his career, Clifford Ko, MD, has been driven by a desire for knowledge and excellence.

It comes through in his work as chief of colon and rectal surgery at UCLA Health; in his reams of published research into surgical quality of care; and even in his extracurricular pursuits — a curiosity about wine that led him to become a sommelier.

Dr. Ko credits his mentors at UCLA Health, where he did his residency, for instilling his passion for continuous improvement.

“It’s been more than a career’s worth of work,” Dr. Ko says. “It’s been both worthwhile and challenging, two characteristics I’ve always found to be important.”

Today, Dr. Ko not only cares for patients at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center and teaches at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, he’s director of research and optimal patient care at the American College of Surgeons. He also consults with health leaders from around the world, sharing what he’s learned and helping them adopt best practices for patient outcomes. He’s worked with health ministries in Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Spain and Korea on improving surgical care and results.

Dr. Ko has published more than 450 peer-reviewed research papers in scientific journals and given hundreds of invited lectures internationally.

Learning from the best

Dr. Ko didn’t have any particular specialty in mind when he started general surgery residency in 1998. He was impressed by the level of expertise and range of fields at UCLA Health. But one clinician’s “mastery” inspired him to specialize in colorectal surgery.

“This particular surgeon was a master clinician with unparalleled technical prowess,” Dr. Ko says. ““He was extremely experienced, had a command of difficult anatomy, and was strategic, logical, yet humble in his thought processes and communication. He was a great role model for me. He was very inspiring.”

Dr. Ko has been a leader at UCLA Health ever since.

“I’ve always wanted to stay at UCLA because it’s just a great place to be,” he says. “My mentors are here. My role models have been here. I have great colleagues here. There’s so much expertise and collegiality here at UCLA. It's truly a special place that prioritizes achieving excellence and sustaining it.”

Another of Dr. Ko’s early mentors inspired his interest in studying surgical quality of care. Learning how surgery can be improved provides balance to the “immediate results” surgeons expect, he says. “Investigative research requires creativity, innovation and focuses on the long game of extending impact, moving from individual patients we care for daily to thousands, or maybe millions, we can help through research.”

His work as a clinician inspires his studies.

“When you’re in the clinical world, you can see some issues that require improvement through investigation,” he says. “The great thing is when our research identified solutions that can then be applied back to the patients we care for. It’s also important to share our findings with others, because a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Joe Hines, MD, chair of the Department of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says Dr. Ko’s work in surgical quality of care has “defined and is the standard-bearer for surgery patient outcomes across the globe.”

“He has impacted every surgery patient in the country and beyond for over a decade,” says Dr. Hines, a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

A sidestep into sommelier studies

During a brief break between research grants a few years ago, Dr. Ko followed his curiosity about wine into sommelier studies. The idea of being able to identify the grape and geographical origin of a wine through a single sip seemed like “a really cool skill,” he says. A chance conversation with a hotel bartender inspired him to sign up for classes.

Dr. Ko approached this new hobby with a level of focus and determination similar to that which he’d applied to medical school.

wine expert

“I bought stacks and stacks of note cards,” he says. “I drew all these maps of wine regions around the world and took detailed notes on grapes and growing techniques. It was really, really intense. And interesting!”

He even invested in a “smelling kit” from Provence, France, to help him hone his nose and scent vocabulary. During conference calls in the days before Zoom, he’d whiff a few vials of the kit’s 60 scents to develop his olfactory awareness.

Dr. Ko says he was the only person in his class who didn’t work in the wine or restaurant industry.

“I have to say, I was really nervous taking the sommelier test,” he says. “I was almost as nervous as when I took my surgical board exam.”

Sommeliers must be able to identify the type of grape and origin of a wine through blind taste samples – to distinguish between a cabernet sauvignon from France and a pinot noir from California, for example.

Dr. Ko still enjoys wine as a hobby, though he acknowledges he now likes to be challenged by finding good wines that “don’t break the bank.”

“Just like health care, it’s about quality and value,” he says.

This commitment to excellence that shines through in his personal life continues to drive him professionally.

“What interests me is: How do we continue to evaluate and improve the quality of care that we deliver,” Dr. Ko says. “I would love to see that everywhere, globally. And since I work at UCLA, I and others here are continually striving to improve how we do things. Being chief of colorectal surgery, I and my colleagues are proud to provide among the highest quality of care in colorectal surgery in the country, and probably beyond.”

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