Researchers at the University of Maryland recently announced a potential breakthrough in “neuropathic” pain — pain that results from malfunctioning or damaged nerves. Neuropathic pain afflicts 100 million Americans and costs the nation over half a trillion dollars every year.
Though the condition isn’t caused by physical trauma, it can create a phantom sensation ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating agony. The Maryland researchers developed a new technique that uses ultrasound waves to neutralize pain.
That research team has a distinctive feature: It’s composed of physician-scientists. These specialized healthcare providers treat patients while conducting research to develop new medicines and procedures.
Unfortunately, the physician-scientist is an endangered species. Our country is suffering a severe and growing shortage. If we don’t reverse this trend, patients could lose out on life-saving treatments.
Physician-scientists’ formal training includes both a medical degree and a Ph.D. in the biological and/or physical sciences. Unlike typical researchers, physician-scientists have an intimate perspective of the patient experience. They bring those insights into the laboratory, where they guide research and the discovery process.
Shortly after the University of Maryland team announced its breakthrough, a physician-scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles discovered a blood protein linked to a common type of heart failure. Other research teams failed to find such a clear biomarker. This finding will likely be used to create a simple blood test to determine patients’ risk of developing a catastrophic heart condition.
And In June, a group of physician-scientists at Oregon Health & Science University published research on a compound that could stop cancer cells from spreading throughout the body.
Such monumental discoveries are the specialty of the physician-scientist and the benefit of blending practical medicine with academic research.
Physician-scientists also help patients make informed decisions. They’re well-equipped to see through pharmaceutical and medical device marketing that saturates the health care industry.
Consider the story of Dr. Jalees Rehman, a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois. Dr. Rehman recalled a patient asking him about a heart procedure offered by a private clinic in Thailand. Thai doctors would treat the patient’s advanced heart disease with a bone marrow injection. The stem cells in the marrow would, supposedly, heal damaged valves, chambers, and nerves.
Dr. Rehman knew the procedure was bogus: Bone marrow contains few stems cells and the injection process presented enormous health risks. He successfully deterred the patient from undergoing the procedure.
It’s increasingly difficult for patients to receive informed advice. Between 2003 and 2012, the population of physician-scientists shrunk by nearly 6 percent. Today, physician-scientists represent just one out of every 100 doctors.
It’s imperative to grow a new crop of physician-scientists. If we don’t, medical innovation could stagnate.
More federal funding for young physician-scientists would help tremendously. Currently, most funding goes to physician-scientists who are already well established in their respective fields. From 2012 to 2017, nearly six in 10 NIH pediatric research grants went to senior-level physician-scientists. When young physician-scientists can’t secure grants, they often decide to abandon their research and practice medicine full-time.
Institutions of higher education also have a role to play. Schools that only offer traditional medical degrees could create physician-scientist programs to attract young people to the profession. My school — the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine — recently launched a seven-year D.O./Ph.D. program.
Physician-scientists bridge the gap between scientific theory and practical medicine. We need to boost their ranks.
Kurt Amsler, Ph.D., is a professor of biomedical sciences at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.