Infectious Disease Physician at the Forefront of COVID-19 Care

MCW alumnus and infectious disease physician Dr. Daniel McQuillen at the forefront of COVID-19 care
Dr. Daniel McQuillen in 2021.

Daniel P. McQuillen, MD ’85, GME ’88, president-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), never could have imagined he’d be at the forefront of a global pandemic when he first entered an anatomy lab at MCW in 1981.

“At one point in spring 2020, we were running 150 ICU beds with four infectious disease physicians,” says Dr. McQuillen, who is a senior physician at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “We all worked the whole time; it was like a tsunami.”

But infectious diseases (ID) wasn’t on Dr. McQuillen’s mind as a specialty when he started medical school. “My father was then the chair of neurology at MCW, but what attracted me, and especially kept me there for residency, was the clinical experience in a broad range of settings,” Dr. McQuillen shares. “We practiced at the county hospital, several private hospitals and the VA, which allowed us to see the kind of variety of conditions and people we would run into in our future career.”

As an internal medicine resident, Dr. McQuillen realized he could continue to see a diverse patient population if he were to specialize in ID, and he was hooked. “You treat people from all backgrounds and make an impact in curing their infections or preventing them,” he remarks.

During his fellowship at Boston City Hospital, Dr. McQuillen encountered his first epidemic: HIV. “When I started out as a resident, no one really knew what HIV was, and then it really exploded when I was a fellow,” he recalls. "I remember taking care of a number of HIV patients as a fellow and then a junior attending physician where I had no treatments to offer them.”

Dr Daniel McQuillen at his medical school graduation
Dr. Daniel McQuillen (center) at the time of his graduation from MCW in 1985, accompanied by his father, Dr. Michael McQuillen (right), then chair of MCW’s department of neurology.

Fast forward to 2020, and Dr. McQuillen can’t help but compare the two epidemics. “COVID-19 has the same sort of feeling of powerlessness as HIV, but it’s like drinking from a firehose in how fast it’s coming at you,” he says.

As part of the IDSA board, Dr. McQuillen and colleagues made an intentional effort at the beginning of 2020 for the society to become a source of truth for both their medical colleagues and the public.

The pandemic also has shone a light on the shortage of ID physicians in the US, something Dr. McQuillen and the IDSA have been working to address for years.

“Over the past 10 years, there has been a decline in applications for infectious disease fellowships – mostly due to economics,” he explains. “Students are coming out of medical school with huge amounts of debt, and they see that they would make substantially more money in a procedural specialty than in a cognitive specialty.”

But Dr. McQuillen is hopeful that a silver lining of this pandemic will be an uptick of interest in ID. “Our fellowship match was substantially more successful in filling positions this year than it has been in about a decade, and when I’ve interviewed people applying for either medical residences or ID fellowships, they mention being inspired by physicians like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky.”

The pandemic also has strengthened Dr. McQuillen’s passion for his specialty – reinforcing that he and his ID colleagues don’t just take care of patients; they also take care of communities.

Dr. McQuillen reflects on the impact that his early years at MCW had on his ultimate choice of specialty. “I think six or seven people in my graduating class went into infectious diseases,” he notes, including a student who worked next to him during anatomy class.

“That says something about the experiences we had,” he adds.

– Karri Stock

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