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Medical Research as a Career

Alternative Physician Careers - Medical Research
olegdudko/123RF.com

Of all the ways one can practice medicine, one of the most fulfilling is in research. Research medicine involves searching and re-searching for, as well as discovering, proving, and implementing, approaches and applications of the medical arts that will move the science. One can derive a lot of personal satisfaction in adding to the body of knowledge that will result in helping others, while enjoying the personal pride that comes from leaving a legacy. It doesn’t hurt that you’ll be making a comfortable living, too.

Still a doctor.

One may think that a medical degree isn’t really necessary to do research. Indeed, there are many in research who do not have an MD or a DO on the wall. However, the ultimate result of medical research is applicability to patients and illnesses, and no one knows that world better than a physician. Having that degree packs a wallop when you’re on the phone with other physicians discussing their patients and how your research relates to them; it gets you into the door to discuss culling volunteers from other physicians to include in your studies.

Although you may not be seeing patients according to a full office schedule, you are never far from patients, at least theoretically.

Doctors: the visible and the invisible.

There are two ways you may find yourself in research:

The first is the straight research route in which you are part of a think tank—that is, a research team—that pursues solving a healthcare problem. In this role, you recruit volunteer subjects from other doctors or from the general public with media ads that often offer remuneration. For your efforts, you are paid either directly by a university or company for which you work or indirectly via a grant from a drug company or other private or charity group that has a personal stake in the outcome—be it a new drug, a protocol for instituting therapy, a profit, or just plain altruism.

The second way you may find yourself in research is as a private physician who joins other doctors or a drug company in a joint venture, providing sweat equity (research on the side) for additional financial support. It turns out that drug companies can’t do the research themselves. They’re not the doctors. Even if they were the doctors, the governmental phobia against conflicts of interest is so intense you better not even have similar alleles for the same color eyes as the company management. So, they need doctors, and you’re a doctor. They need patients, and you have patients.

Result: they will come to you, especially if you’ve shown a particular interest in a particular disease or some pesky symptom.

The cup half full: a toast to big shots.

The good thing about research medicine is you get to become an expert in a niche. You get to be the big shot everyone comes to hear while they eat a dinner graciously provided by your benefactor. You get to give lectures and travel. If you’re with a university or pharmaceutical company, you have no overhead and you don’t need to worry about malpractice. Your only worry is plagiarism, but those fellas already know who they are.

The cup half empty: from red tape to black numbers.

A bad thing about research medicine is all of the bureaucracy. There are institutional review boards, proofs of concept, and that dreaded number, “n=,” that determines how many subjects you will need to even pull off a credible result. You will be sitting glaze-eyed with statisticians over coffee. If you scorn such bureaucracy, however, don’t think it’s any better in any of the other medical practice models. (Wait till you get a load of what insurance companies expect!)

Another downside is the math. Research is a statistics-heavy specialty, at best interesting, at worst boring, accepting propositions or rejecting them based on means, medians, variance, deviations, standard errors, and confidence intervals. Your social life may suffer, and it’s not because you’re overworked. It’s because no one at the party wants to hear about a null hypothesis, unless you happen to lead a double life as an explorer or an adventurer.

Gods among men.

The truly wonderful thing about research as a career, however, is that it is the only specialty of medicine that can have a true path to greatness, and if you add in a patent here or there, perhaps even to vast riches. (How’d you like to be the woman who invented wearable patches for monitoring and drug delivery systems? How would you like few billion dollars?) Research is both a privilege and a talent, but can be a yawn or a boon, visibility or invisibility, fun or dreariness. Or, it just may be a way to earn a living. It’s not the highest doctor’s salary, but it’s still a doctor’s salary. What you do with research depends on your interests, of course.

While one of your peers may drolly refer to researchers as nerds and reclusive boors, you might just respond by asking how many yeast infections does one need to treat before attaining self-actualization…or when will his or her next discovery change the world?

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About Gerard DiLeo, M.D.

Dr. Gerard DiLeo, physician and published women's health author for McGraw-Hill, is now writing full time after a career of over 30 years in private OBGYN practice in the New Orleans area. He has served twice as Chief-of-Staff at a major regional hospital and 5 years in academics as Director of the Division of Pelvic Pain in the Dept. of OBGYN at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. He is an accomplished minimally invasive surgeon, laparoscopist, and an inventor (the catheter-stethoscope--U.S. Patent). He and his family live their post-Katrina life in Florida. He can be reached at drdileo@gmail.com.