Science Needs More Physicians

Physician-scientists have long been a driving force for the advancement of biomedical research. Nearly 80 percent of the Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine from 1901-1935 were clinicians. In addition to leading or contributing to momentous discoveries in history, contemporary physician-scientists are credited for playing a key role on multidisciplinary research teams – including by representing patients’ needs and understanding how healthcare is delivered.

Science Needs More Physicians infographic

Unfortunately, these roles have been threatened by a documented reduction in the physician-scientist workforce. In 2012, a team sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to analyze the biomedical research workforce found that only about one-third of all principal investigators on NIH grants were physician-scientists. Follow-up studies have uncovered additional evidence regarding the decline of US physicians conducting research.

Mary Eapen, MD, MSAs one solution to help address the current and projected shortages, the NIH created the R38 grant mechanism – also known as the Stimulating Access to Research in Residency program. MCW faculty members Michael Widlansky, MD, MPH, Northwestern Mutual Professor of Cardiology, professor of medicine and pharmacology and toxicology, and Mary Eapen, MD, MS (pictured left), professor of medicine and senior scientific director for research in the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research, thought that this NIH program provided an opportunity to enhance research offerings in the MCW department of medicine’s internal medicine residency program. Their successful application made MCW one of the first seven institutions funded to develop an R38 program through support from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

“The NIH created this program because the rate of physician-scientists has plummeted,” says Benjamin Hofeld, MD, GME ’19, MCW cardiovascular medicine fellow and R38 program participant. “The purpose is to reintroduce physicians to science during residency training and support the development of their future research careers.”

Drs. Widlansky and Eapen designed the two-year research immersion program with a number of components they considered crucial for physicians launching successful academic research careers, including: individualized development plans; a dedicated multidisciplinary mentoring team; protected research time; research support including dedicated time for learning new skills; and an environment with many integrated clinical and research experiences.

“In building this new program at MCW, we looked at the factors that cause research-intensive students to fall away from scientific endeavors during their graduate medical education years,” notes Dr. Widlansky.

Two participants already have completed their training in MCW’s physician-scientist immersion program. Another participant will begin in 2022 and a fourth in 2023.

“My experience in MCW’s R38 program has been wonderful,” shares participant Kate Cohen, MD ’17, GME ’20, also an MCW cardiovascular medicine fellow. “I gained an amazing mentor in Dr. Julie Freed [MD ’11, PhD ’08, GME ’16, FEL ’17], who has been very generous with her time.”

Dr. Hofeld agreed on the importance of mentorship to his success within the program. “I’m so grateful to have Dr. Widlansky as a mentor. I can hardly believe I’m preparing a submission to the MCW Institutional Review Board and an Investigational New Drug application to the FDA for a new clinical study.”

Michael Widlansky, MD, MPH“We’re very pleased with the progress of our first two participants,” adds Dr. Widlansky (pictured right). “They’ve met all benchmarks, published first-author scholarly articles in the literature and presented their work at national meetings.”

“Participation in this program will shape my career in significant and meaningful ways,” says Dr. Cohen. “I have a much clearer path forward, and I intend to draw upon this experience when it is my turn to mentor aspiring physician-scientists one day.”

– Greg Calhoun

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