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Multitudes of Physician's Roles

The Multitude of a Physician's Roles: An Interview with Dr. David Katzenstein

By Revanth Kosaraju

Typically, people tend to view a physician as someone who treats people through the patient visit. For me this is certainly the case – before college; having seen the same pediatrician for years, it was firmly ingrained in my head that a physician's primary role was to oversee an individual's health through diagnosing his or her problem and providing treatment for the patient visit. However, physicians have played many different roles throughout history, and this pattern continues today. For instance, Dr. Paul Farmer, the world-renowned doctor, is as much an activist an humanitarian as he is a physician, having made strides and led initiatives to promote human rights in third-world nations along with better health.

To get a better understanding of the diverse roles physicians can play, we have decided to interview Stanford doctors who work in multiple professional capacities. These interviews will shed light on the many roles of a physician in society and provide interesting backgrounds to help students diversify their ideas about a career in medicine.
This article features an interview with Dr. David Katzenstein, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Q: Tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today?
I was an undergraduate, a biology major in particular, at University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  Because I was interested in science and healthcare, I decided to go to medical school, with the initial dream of being a primary care practitioner and seeing patients in a small town, providing to underserved populations.  However, I did a lot of science research while I was in medical school, and after falling in love with research and teaching, I became an infectious disease fellow. I got caught up in the San Francisco HIV/AIDS epidemic after moving to the Bay Area. Infectious disease doctors such as myself were the main care providers.  After some time in San Francisco, I moved to Minnesota briefly and then accepted a teaching position at the University of Zimbabwe, as it would give me the chance to teach and conduct clinical research. In 1989 I was recruited to Stanford, where I still am today.

Q: What brought you to research with HIV/AIDS in particular?
Being in SF at the time of the initial HIV/AIDS crisis was exciting and scary.  The HIV/AIDS area of medicine found me as I became caught up in the cause of trying to address the AIDS crisis through focused research.

Q: How did your time in Zimbabwe impact your goals as an M.D.?
It was really neat being in Zimbabwe around the time of the apartheid political crisis in South Africa, since Zimbabwe had been recently liberated and it was such a contrast to the political turmoil in South Africa.  I had a very pleasant time there, met interesting and fascinating people, and forged a connection that now even applies to the "Global HIV/AIDS" class I am teaching here.

Q: What brought you to teaching?
Generally university doctors are expected to do the "triple threat" of seeing patients, conducting research, and teaching.
I felt I could not do justice to the first (being someone's care provider) with my commitments to research and travel, so I decided to give up seeing patients. I am still active both in teaching and in research, as I love doing both.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your professional career?
The freedom to explore what I want and the joy of problem solving based on my own interests.  Very few people have the freedom to choose what they want to solve today, and for me, I enjoy problem solving in biological science, such as studying infectious diseases.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to premeds today?
In my generation, people would enter medical school and complete their undergrad education at a strict timetable.  Nowadays, people have the freedom to take several years to complete med school or even their undergrad education, due to the ability to take years off to conduct research full time, pursue their Ph.D.s, or just explore other interests.
I would encourage all premeds to explore these new freedoms, including potentially taking a year off before med school (gap year). Stop and smell the roses.

This interview shows that as an M.D., diagnosing and treating patients is not necessarily a physician's only professional responsibility. In fact, Dr. Katzenstein has chosen research and teaching as the primary focus of his medical career but nevertheless remains committed to promoting science and the furthering of human healthcare through medicine. This piece will be followed up with two more interviews of prominent Stanford professors. Stay tuned!

[This interview has been condensed and edited to reflect the content, but not necessarily the specific wording, of Dr. Katzenstein's responses, due to the nature of the interview. This article is published with Dr. Katzenstein's permission.]


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