December 2, 2010

Retreat explores crucial role of physicians in research

Featured Image

On hand for the research retreat at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts were, from left, C. Michael Stein, M.D., William Pao, M.D., Ph.D., Andrew Schafer, M.D., and Gordon Bernard, M.D. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Retreat explores crucial role of physicians in research

Physician scientists are as vital to continued progress in medical research as are their Ph.D. counterparts.

Yet the pool of physicians who apply for independent research funding from the federal government “essentially hasn't changed in the last 30 years,” while applications from Ph.D. scientists have soared, Andrew Schafer, M.D., chair of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Vanderbilt University School of Medicine researchers last month.

One reason: a widening “chasm” between basic scientists and practicing clinicians that impedes efforts to communicate and collaborate. Cultural factors, including rigid promotion policies and lack of mentoring, also discourage many young physicians, especially women, from pursuing careers in science.

“Chances are high that within the next decade or two, women will be the significant majority of physicians,” Schafer said. “The thought of losing the extraordinary intellectual firepower of women physician scientists in the future because of these obstacles to me is absolutely unthinkable.”

Schafer was the keynote speaker during the ninth annual research retreat Nov. 19 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts organized by the medical school's Office for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development.

Research presentations were given by several participants in the Master of Science in Clinical Investigation and Master of Public Health programs and in the Elliot Newman Society, which helps junior faculty members obtain independent research support.

William Pao, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Personalized Cancer Medicine initiative at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, also discussed genetically-informed cancer medicine as “the next standard of care.”

“Throughout history, physicians played a central role in advancing the science of medicine,” said Schafer, editor of the recently published book “The Vanishing Physician-Scientist?

“Their contributions were based largely on astute observations they made on their patients,” he said. “This is translational research … bedside to bench.”

To revitalize the physician-scientist workforce, academic medical centers must improve mentoring, increase flexibility in the promotion process, and identify and nurture future investigators as early as high school.

In addition, “we have to celebrate the difference that Ph.D. scientists and M.D. scientists bring to the biomedical research enterprise,” Schafer said.

“If institutions have the courage and vision to adapt to contemporary realities and can dismantle the many formidable barriers that confront young physician scientists today,” he concluded, “and I have to add that from the outside it's very clear that Vanderbilt is at the very leading edge of this, I think the future of physician scientists … is as bright as ever.”