As technological advances and new medical discoveries cause the worlds of medicine and science to collide, there’s an increasing need for a hybrid breed of medical researcher: the physician-scientist. These specialized, medically trained researchers conduct important studies into potential causes, treatments, and preventative measures for existing diseases, work with world leaders to advice on public health issues, and help to identify any new health threats that may arise for the general population. While physician-scientists are less commonly known, they play a critical role in bridging the gap between medicine and science.
So, what is a physician-scientist, and what exactly do they do?
In simple terms, a physician-scientist is an individual with an MD degree, who spends the majority of their time completing medical research projects. A physician-scientist may also hold a degree in science, a PhD, JD, or MBA in addition to their MD, although it’s common for the MD to be the only degree.
These health professionals may be employed in various settings, from a Pain Physician Practice to a laboratory, or even at a college as a lecturer or researcher. Physician-scientists use their expertise in both medical and scientific fields to investigate everything from designing new ways to treat or prevent disease, to testing hypotheses on real patient cases.
How do you become a physician-scientist?
There are multiple points of entry into a career as a physician-scientist, with the US providing some of the most accessible pathways at more than 40 colleges nationally. US students wishing to pursue a career as a physician-scientist can apply for a dual degree program (MD/PhD), which will prepare them for a career in medicine. While taking part in this dual degree, the majority of US physician-scientist students are also supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Medical Scientist Training Program, which provides them with the skills required to conduct medical research.
Students can also get an MD and complement this with fellowship training. This combination of clinical practice experience and scientific research applications prepares students to enter into various laboratory or clinic-based roles.
What do physician-scientists do?
Physician-scientists may work in a variety of professional settings, from colleges to hospitals, and they typically focus on medical research. Here are some examples of what a physician-scientist may focus on day-to-day:
Detecting new threats to human health
As many physician-scientists are free to choose their area of work (assuming they have reasons compelling enough to receive funding), some choose to work on detecting newer health threats that may affect the wider population. As an example, the link between sugar and diabetes or smoking and lung cancer may not have been proven without the intervention of a physician-scientist. Generally, a physician-scientist working on this type of research will form a hypothesis and develop experiments or studies designed to either prove or disprove a link between a substance or behavior and a potential health threat. This type of research is common in college laboratories, and generally requires the lead physician-scientist to apply for research grants in order to complete the investigation.
Some physician-scientists are privately employed, and may have their research subjects and goals assigned by their employer, potentially to benefit the employers’ best interests. While private employment can be more lucrative, and research may be better funded, a physician-scientist may be unable to pursue research that they deem important, and will likely need to justify their research to executives who are not in the medical or scientific fields.
Developing potential new therapies and treatments
One of the most critical types of work that physician-scientists’ may complete is developing new treatments and identifying preventative measures for existing diseases. A physician-scientist may specialize in a certain area of study, from futuristic electroceutical studies to more common interests, such as:
A physician-scientist will generally identify potential areas of research themselves, within their chosen discipline. As an example, if they specialize in diabetes research, they may identify a possible new treatment option, and request funding to test it. The most common way to do this is through clinical trials, which can be overseen by a trained physician-scientist, sometimes in conjunction with a fully qualified physician.
In a clinical trial, there are generally two groups of participants—one who is given the experimental treatment, and one who receives a placebo, with neither group knowing who received which. A physician-scientist will monitor and report on the results of this trial and publish their findings, confirming whether the treatment did or didn’t work, or whether the results were inconclusive.
Bridging the gap between scientists and doctors
One of the major benefits of physician-scientists is their ability to discuss both scientific and medical notions fluently, enabling them to communicate with and understand both sides effectively.
While some organizations, such as The Markey Trust, have launched multiple programs to provide cross-training benefits for scientists and medical professionals, a trained physician-scientist already has the advantage of being capable in both fields. Being able to understand principles of both science and medicine, and to communicate these effectively, may allow physician-scientists to complete research more independently. They typically don’t require as much outside consultation as a researcher who has only trained in one discipline.
Helping to guide important policy decisions
Physician-scientists play an instrumental role in guiding major policy decisions, both within the medical system and the wider political arena. Roughly 60-70% of policy guidelines that dictate a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, and recovery time have been influenced by the work of a physician-scientist. If new research shows that some treatments are outdated or less effective than new treatments, or that recovery time for some procedures is longer than previously thought, these findings may influence hospital management when dictating patient-care guidelines.
Physician-scientists may also be consulted in matters of public health. In most cases, the FDA will not approve a new drug or treatment for public use until it’s been proven safe in clinical trials, which can be created and overseen by physician-scientists. Additionally, in situations where an unfamiliar disease or condition is spreading, as seen recently with Covid-19, government officials will generally consult with medical professionals for information on how to keep the public safe; the information that these medical leaders offer may well have been discovered by physician-scientists.
Teaching medical or science students
Physician-scientists are not limited to niche experiments and research; some may take on a teaching role, and impart knowledge to science or medical students. Clinical trials either partially funded by a college or taking place in a college-based laboratory may often utilize medical or science students for some elements. Clinical trials or research projects can provide college students with practical experience in their chosen field, while remaining under the supervision of a qualified professional. College students may complete some components of the research programs on their own, and have their work checked by the physician-scientist at a later date. A trained physician-scientist may also decide that lab work is not for them, and transition into teaching either medical or science units at a reputable college, in a lecture or classroom environment.
Could your project benefit from a physician-scientist?
If you manage a clinic or laboratory, considering a physician-scientist as a full or part-time staff member may be a good choice. Any business where there’s a high crossover of medicinal treatment and research could benefit from a professional who’s trained in both. If
you work in pharmaceuticals, or you’re considering having some research completed which relates to a health concern, a physician-scientist may be able to complete this for you; this can minimize the need for expensive medical or scientific consultations down the line.
Declining physician-scientist numbers
Concerns have been raised consistently over the last few decades that the physician-scientists are becoming an endangered species in medicine. As far back as the 1970s, leaders in the medical profession have questioned whether it’s possible for academics to master both science and medicine in a meaningful way, calling for more resources to support budding physician-scientists. The existing pool of physician-scientists is getting older and smaller as time goes on; the NIH has reported that the number of young professionals applying for research grants is reducing, and the average age of those seeking research support is now 43 years of age—an increase of four years in the last decade. Those in the medical community have raised the issue that more support and awareness of the physician-scientist career path is necessary to ensure that critical medical research continues to flourish.
The American Physician-Scientists Association (APSA) aims to solve this problem by being a leading advocate and voice for physician scientists based in the US. APSA aims to support new and existing physician-scientists in:
Improving educational opportunities for trainees
Advancing patient-oriented research
Advocating for biomedical and translational research
Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of having health professionals trained in both science and clinical medicine available and ready for critical public health issues. In a world where disease can spread rapidly around the globe, supporting our future medical leaders and funding important public health research has never been more important. As we learn more about scientific and medical advancements, physician-scientists will continue to be a critical part of our collective public health plan.