Scientist physicians have a key role to play in modern medicine

Michael Friedlander

By Jim Stroup/Virginia Tech

Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

How much research does a doctor need to know? In the past, it was enough for physicians to treat illnesses and injuries. If they wanted to understand the molecular mechanisms of an illness, they could pursue a doctorate. Not so anymore, argued Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Chicago, Illinois.

This year’s meeting ran under the header of “Learn, Serve, Lead,” and was opened by Alan Alda, the actor, director, and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Friedlander’s panel followed Alda’s plenary session. Friedlander shared the stage with Dr. David Meltzer, director of the Pritzker School of Medicine’s Center for Health and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Simon Mahler, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health.

The theme of the meeting – to learn, serve, and lead – was an ode to the ever-changing landscape against which Friedlander set his presentation. Never has there been a more important time in history, Friedlander said, for medical doctors to understand the scientific literature to advocate for the best care for their patients.

“We need doctors who go above and beyond routine medical cases,” Friedlander said. “By training as scientist physicians, they’ll have a deeper understanding of what’s behind the medicine, of what’s behind the diseases. They’ll be better doctors to their patients.”

Friedlander, who is also the senior dean of research at the Virginia Tech School of Medicine, presented his case during a symposium titled, “Scientist Physicians and Physician Scientists: Evidence Generating Workforce.” He said that only about 16 percent of physicians who earn doctorates actually see patients; the others spend their careers in academia, doing research or teaching.

“We’re seeing that students want to become scientist physicians,” Friedlander said. “At the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, where we place significant emphasis on research, we have more than 3,500 applicants for only 42 slots a year. Our students become medical practitioners whose main focus is patient care, but who also bring the perspective, knowledge, and analytical skills of a scientist to all aspects of the practice of medicine.”

The school’s curriculum immerses students in the language, culture, and practice of research, Friedlander added.

“Not only do they learn the culture of research, but they’re required to do research,” Friedlander said. “They end up getting heavily involved in the research, participating at every step.”

All this training pays off, Friedlander said.

“Medical students who are trained in scientific research will, as doctors, be able to base their patient-care decisions on the best science,” Friedlander said.

Written by Ashley WennersHerron