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From the Bench to the Bedside: The Physician-Scientist

By: Ronke Olowojesiku

During the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the United States along with the world was in the grips of a disease that crippled the lives of many both physically and emotionally. This disease, which in its most severe manifestation attacks the central nervous system and renders its victims paralyzed, gave rise to an overwhelming collective fear palpable across all communities. By the 1930s, this increasing fear brought forth a valiant spirit which sought to sever the hold this malady maintained on humanity. The sword that pierced through the stronghold of this disease came in the form of a vaccine, forged by a bright researcher of humble immigrant beginnings. The disease in question is poliomyelitis and the researcher was none other than Jonas Salk, a New York University-trained physician whose work as a medical scientist led to the eradication of one of the most detrimental infectious disease in nearly all the countries of the world (Ononek & Morganstein).

Over the past century, medical research has led to great advancements in human health, advancements that surpass any other. With the development of vaccines, antibiotics, and other methods of medical treatment and testing, humans have been able to live longer and fuller lives. One only has to look a few decades back to Salk’s famous development of the polio vaccine to see the impact medical research has had and continues to have on mankind. With the completion of the Human Genome Project at the wake of the 21st century, researchers have come closer to better understanding the workings of human body and from there, have allowed health care providers with the means to better mend it when necessary. Thus, the role of a medical scientist is one of the utmost importance with regards to shedding a light on the unknown mechanisms that are carried out beneath the skin.

A medical scientist is an individual who conducts research concerning the overall improvement of human health. Most medical scientists maintain solely a doctoral degree in biology or a related life science, while a good number of these scientists, known as physician-scientists, also have a medical degree. In fact, many medical schools now offer combined MD/PhD programs which last between 7-8 years. The first program of this type was started by Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1956. With the start of this first program came the development of many similar programs throughout the United States, including the ever-competitive Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). Upon the completion of their formal training, physician-scientists enter a three to seven year period of specialty and subspecialty clinical and research residency/fellowship in which research is an integral part of the program (“Medical Scientists”).

Once full-fledged MD-PhD physician-scientists, these individuals will likely enter careers in academic medicine or in an industry such as pharmaceuticals. There, they can expect a median wage of about $76,700 according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, or a slightly higher median salary of about $96,000 if they work in the fields of pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing. The top ten percent of medical scientists earning close to $150,000. These wages are often provided through the entity the scientist works for and/or through special grants from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (“Medical Scientists”).

Though the salary of a physician-scientist is not near that of a clinical physician, the implications of the work that these medical scientists conduct are far greater than any dollar amount. Physician-scientists serve the vital role of a translator in that they serve to translate the discoveries made at the workbench to the bedside. They can move in and around the languages of both science and medicine to ensure that all is as it should be; that everyone is on the same page. However, in this day and age, the physician-scientist faces many threats in various forms. One such threat comes in the form of funding. That the environment for research funding in these trying economic times is a rough one is no secret. Even in the absence of a weak economy, often politics and economics influence the funding of several research endeavors. A scientist conducting research on AIDS or cancer is more likely to gain funding from a large national institution than say a scientist who is researching a tropical neglected disease due to the economic advantages to be garnered from the research of the former. Economics and politics aside, competition for grants puts a lot of pressure and stress on the physician-scientist, pressure and stress which only serve to impede research (“Public Agenda Guide”).

Another threat comes from the simple fact that the number of individuals considering careers as physician-scientists has diminished. This occurrence is due to, in part, the demographics of medical school classes. Today’s medical school classes are comprised for roughly 50% females and 50% males, greatly contrasting the medical classes of old which were predominantly male. Female physicians often do not consider careers as physician-scientists due to lack of encouragement and effective role models in the field, apprehension regarding competition with their male counterparts, and an overall concern about balancing family life with a career (Schafer 2010).

The latter of the aforementioned concerns is one that plagues today’s medical students as a whole, regardless of gender. Our generation is, understandably, worried about balancing our work life with our personal life in this busy day and age and the lifestyle of a physician-scientist appears to be one of never-ending stressors with seemingly little in the way of a return. However, the return is truly greater than any one singular person in the sense of its implications on society as a whole. As Salk and his team’s tireless work on the polio vaccine led to the near-eradication of one of the world’s most debilitating afflictions, physician-scientists, with the weapons of both science and medicine in their arsenal, have much to add in the way of the overall wellness of mankind.

Citations:

Medical Scientists : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.).
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm#tab-6
Okonek, B., & Morganstein, L. (n.d.). Development of Polio Vaccines.Development of Polio Vaccines.
Retrieved October 13, 2012, from www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/CC/polio.
Public Agenda Issue Guide: Medical Research – Overview | Public Agenda. (n.d.). Public Agenda. Retrieved
October 13, 2012, from http://www.publicagenda.org/citizen/issueguides/medical-research/overview
Schafer, A. (2012). The vanishing physician-scientist?.Translational Research, 155(1), 1-2. Retrieved
October 13, 2012, from the PubMed database.
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