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​Innovative Pitt Program Addresses National Shortage of Physician Scientists

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Allison Hydzik
Director, Science and Research

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PITTSBURGH – The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has been awarded a five-year, $2.5 million Physician Scientist Institutional Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, matched by a $2.5 million grant from UPMC and $250,000 from Pitt, to create an elite training program designed to set newly minted physicians on a career path that integrates scientific research with clinical care.

The University of Pittsburgh Physician Scientist Incubator program was one of five such programs that the Burroughs Wellcome Fund selected from 92 submissions. The fund launched the award program in response to a January 2017 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighting the need for colleges and universities to address a shortage of physician-scientist researchers, as only 1.5 percent of physicians in the U.S. today conduct research.

“We’re at a time of tremendous potential in medicine where the pace of translating scientific potential into therapeutics or new clinical strategies requires that people have a foot in both words – with clinical and scientific knowledge working together. A lot can be lost in translation when a doctor in the clinical world is talking to a scientist who is based only in the lab,” said Mark Gladwin, M.D., principal investigator of the project and chair of the Department of Medicine in Pitt’s School of Medicine.

In addition to Pitt, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund issued awards to Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-Dallas and Duke University Medical Center.

“The physician-scientist shortage is not a new challenge, and its complexity has increased as biomedical science has evolved,” said John Burris, Ph.D., president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. “We sought to address the need by helping institutions create new and novel training programs that can become models for others to replicate.”

Pitt already has a robust program in place for medical students to earn both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees en route to becoming physician-scientists. Additionally, the Pitt School of Medicine’s long-time dean, Arthur Levine, M.D., has championed a unique program that trains medical students to excel in laboratory research and write scientific papers and grant applications without pursuing a Ph.D. degree. The new Physician Scientist Incubator will build and extend that program to specialists in training after medical school.

“It will put more wind into the capes of physicians using science to rescue patients from the grasp of disease,” said Richard Steinman, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and of pharmacology and chemical biology in Pitt’s School of Medicine. He will be executive director of Pitt’s Physician Scientist Incubator program.

To develop Pitt’s application to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, 180 residents, fellows and medical students completed a detailed survey, after which a panel of experts from five disciplines came together to develop creative methods that addressed points raised in the survey and to review the academic literature on physician-scientists and how to help them persist and thrive.

The result is Pitt’s Physician Scientist Incubator program, which specifically seeks to provide participants with the support and flexibility to balance their clinical and research responsibilities while also addressing personal and professional needs. Participants will receive executive-level career coaching so they can align their strengths and passions with the decisions they have to make regarding their future careers and personal lives. They also will be given a wealth of videos, podcasts and written materials that show how successful physician-scientists tackle their responsibilities.

In addition, the participants will have access to concierge services to help them with routine personal and family tasks – such as laundry or home repairs – that might take them away from time they’d like to spend in the clinic or laboratory.

Finally, program participants will have access to a bank of scientific experts who are ready and willing to help them when they run into technical issues or roadblocks while conducting scientific research.

“Our program is unique in that we’re tackling the toughest challenge, which is training people who are M.D.s to succeed in scientific laboratory research,” said Steinman. “We expect that graduates of this new program will run laboratories and clinical services in their future careers, taking what they learn from their patients and applying it to their lab work, and vice versa.”

Twenty-one physicians will be enrolled during the program’s first five years, but hundreds more will benefit from the workshops, online materials and lectures that the program funds. A complete program analysis will help determine which aspects are most effective, in the hope of guiding future programming.

In addition to Gladwin and Steinman, the program’s steering committee includes Edith Tzeng, M.D., professor of surgery; Carlton Bates, M.D., professor of pediatrics; Alison Morris, M.D., M.S., professor of medicine; Doris Rubio, Ph.D., professor of medicine; Daniel Buysse, M.D., professor of psychiatry; Wishwa Kapoor, M.D., M.P.H., Falk Professor of Medicine; and Thomas Kleyman, M.D., professor of medicine, all of Pitt.