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What It Means to Be a Physician
An Interview with Dr. Magee

By Leslie Green, Access Excellence
Copyright 2005

As scientists continue to unravel mysteries and make exciting new research discoveries at a dizzying pace, the world of health and medicine is rapidly changing. Often, the dramatic discoveries of science have a direct impact on our individual health and on our overall health as a society. Mike Magee, MD, a nationally known author and expert on medicine and health care, offers a special feature for Access Excellence titled “Health, Science and Society” that explores the connection between science and health trends. “Health, Science and Society” includes video, slides and other classroom resources and offers insights into health trends with a strong link to modern science.

Dr. Magee has had a long career as a health care commentator, most recently as host of the website HealthPolitics.com, where he explores many health policy issues. Among his many projects, Dr. Magee has also been a mentor for young people considering careers in health and medicine. In this interview, Dr. Magee discusses the “Health, Science and Society” feature, the profession of medicine, health issues that teens should be aware of, and careers for young people in health and medicine.

Q: Hi. I'm Leslie Green with Health Politics, and today we're turning the tables on Dr. Magee, who usually interviews experts, and asking him a few questions. Dr. Magee, when did you know you wanted to become a physician?

A: Well, first, Leslie, thanks for interviewing me. I appreciate it. It was quite easy for me. I was one of 12 kids. My father's office was attached to the house, so from the time we were little kids, we were wandering in and out of his office, and what I noticed at an early age was that he liked being a doctor and the patients seemed to like him. He liked the science. He liked the challenge of making diagnoses. And he liked being in touch with the people and their families. There was a real sense of community in that office and I thought, "Well, if he feels so connected and so happy in what he's doing, maybe this would be a career for me as well."

Q: And did you later face any challenges as you entered medical school and started studying to become a physician?

A: Well, medicine is sort of an interesting combination. On the one hand, it's science -- highly competitive, starting relatively early, having to perform in high school, then in college, taking the MCAT exams and making your way into medical school, which can be challenging. And then, on the other side of it, it's the most humanistic of professions. It requires compassion, understanding, partnership with the people. And so it's those two things that compete. I would say I was moderately talented on the scientific side. I got by, but I was not an all-star in science by any means. But what I did enjoy and what I thought I was pretty good at was interacting with people, reassuring them, helping them with their fears and worries, helping them look toward a positive future, helping them to understand what they needed to do for themselves and for their families. So, I tried to marry those two interests that I had.

Q: How would you say the profession has changed over the years?

A: Well, medicine has always been a challenging profession. If you look at it over the past 100 years, we've made tremendous progress. In this country, lifespan has increased. We have many new discoveries, most of which occurred in the past 20, 30, 40 years. Health consumerism has been a big change, starting around 1983 as part of the Civil Rights Movement, the people suddenly realized, "Hey, these are our bodies. We need to understand them better and we need to take care of our own health." So over the past 20 years, patients have learned to speak the medical language. They understand what basic organs do. And what causes diseases of different types and how to prevent those diseases. So that's been a big change. I think for physicians, initially, when I went through medical school, 1969 to 1973, doctors mostly were clinicians. They managed the clinical care of patients. They examined people. They listened to their histories. They made diagnoses. They recommended certain treatments. Nowadays, doctors do all of that but they're also expected to be team leaders in education and increasingly to be social leaders as well. So the definition of the physician has broadened since when I first went into medicine.

Q: And how did you become interested in the politics of health care?

A: Well, the politics of health care is really a reflection of the needs of the people. In medicine, you have to keep track of what the people need and what the people who are caring for the people need. How do you bring doctors, nurses and patients together? And how do you consider all of the needs of the people? Public health allows you to look at that from a population standpoint. The best I ever heard it described was by the great Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. He was talking to a group of 2,000 doctors at a big annual meeting. It was three months before he died of cancer and he said, "I want you doctors to understand there are four words in the English language that have common English roots. The words are heal, health, whole and holy." And he said, "I'm telling you doctors that because to heal in a modern world, you've got to provide health. And if you're going to provide health, you've got to keep the individual, the family, the community, and society whole. And if you can do all that, why that's a holy thing." So I listened carefully that day and what I've tried to do from a public health standpoint is always understand that the individual is connected to the family, the family to community, and the community to society. And you have to approach medicine from the standpoint of what can we do to keep those four levels close together. What can doctors do as social leaders to make a difference in this world?

Q: And what is it that you're trying to accomplish with “Health, Science and Society,” with your Web site, and with your other various research and communications projects?

A: Well, I think “Health, Science and Society” is a great opportunity for us, and the opportunity came to us because the National Health Museum has done such a great job with Access Excellence. “Health, Science and Society,” to me, means that I'll be able to dialogue with science teachers around the United States and with their students ... having the opportunity to not only share with them what excites me in the realm of science and public policy, but to listen back to what they have to tell me. I found over the years that young people, especially high school students, have a lot to offer. And if I listen carefully, I learn an awful lot from them. Now with this new product that we're bringing forward and the opportunity to interact with them, they're also able to interact with “Health Politics” and with our “Health Politics” blog, which means we'll be able to dialogue back and forth. So I'm really excited about connecting with America's high school students to discuss science and a wide range of other subjects that make a difference in people's lives.

Q: And what do you see as a few of the most important health topics for today's teens?

A: Well, I think it's important to understand that what we call health today is different from what we called health maybe 20, 30, 40 years ago. Health today, for the individual, is about reaching your full human potential. What do I need by way of housing, transportation, job security and preventive health care approaches to be all that I can be? Health for countries is about the leading edge of development. Unless you have health infrastructure, unless you have doctors and nurses, unless you have the ability to access the treatments for modern care, it's impossible for a country economically, politically, socially, to be stable and civil and to reach the extent to which they could develop, and not only for the country but for all of the citizens of that country. So from that standpoint, when I approach health, I'm always looking towards the broader notion of health, and I always think of it in terms of what can I do to serve not only the people but all of the people who are trying to help care for the people.

Q: How do you think that teens, either individually or as groups, can make a difference in health care in their communities?

A: Well, there are so many issues that are of interest, aren't there? Whether you're looking at SARS or whether you're looking at Avian flu, or whether you're looking at environmental issues, like ozone, or clean water, or mercury in our fish. Or whether you're looking at social policy issues. How are we going to extend insurance for the uninsured? How are we going to properly move systems to support the older members of our society and to refashion and redesign homes so that the homes will be able to support good health, not only for our grandparents, but for our parents and children and grandchildren as well? I think teenagers who are involved in science and science clubs and potentially in careers in health care in the future should be interested in providing leadership in terms of advancing health within their communities. They could do this through projects that promote good health and good environment within their societies. They could do it by informing each other on new discoveries in science. Or they could do it by public service projects that expand immunization or clean needle exchange, or a variety of other programs that help ensure that our population is doing well. So I think there's almost no limit to what you might be able to imagine within the context of a public project flowing off of a high school student base that could service our communities.

Q: How do you think high school students can figure out whether or not they should be a physician, if it's the right profession for them?

A: Well, the choice of whether to be a physician is obviously a critical one. I would say that a lot of kids who think about being a doctor don't broadly consider all of the other types of caring professions that they might consider. It used to be when physicians were purely clinical that, you know, there were very few professions, doctor or nurse, that you could be that would allow you the opportunity to diagnose and treat patients. But now, caregivers like doctors and nurses not only are social leaders and clinical leaders, but they're also educational leaders. And this has broadened the opportunities. You could be a doctor, a nurse, a social worker, a psychologist, a sociologist. You could be an economist and have an impact on the way health care is going to go in the future. You could certainly be a teacher on any number of levels and be involved with medical science. So the first suggestion I'd give to high school students is to consider the broad array of activities. Secondly, if one is going to be a doctor or a nurse involved in direct patient care, I think it's important to understand that, yes, there is a scientific side to this but at the core, this is a relationship-building type of profession. So that means that one has to be prepared to give of one's self in compassion and understanding and partnership, and one has to understand that for frail human beings, like us, when you take on these very serious responsibilities, it's a 24/7 job. And it occurs over many years. And people count on you. And if you make a mistake, bad things can happen so there's a high degree of responsibility that you have to be prepared to take upon yourself if you decide to be a physician, a nurse, a health manager, if you're directly involved in assisting patients in decision-making.

All of that said, as I watched my father, what made him happy are the same things that made me happy -- that the work that I'm doing makes a difference in people's lives. It is challenging. It's always changing. It's always interesting. But it's never easy. The preparation to get into medical school was not easy, going through medical school and residency was not easy. Running an operating room and operating on patients was not easy. And trying to fashion the way people think about health these days is not easy for me either. All of these different roles have been challenging. That said, all of them have been very worthwhile, so for young people who are considering medicine or nursing or any of the careers in health, I'd say, "These are lives well spent. But be prepared to give a lot of yourself."

Q: I think that's about it, unless you have anything else to add?

A: No. Leslie, I just wanted to reinforce that I'm so excited about being associated with Access Excellence -- the opportunity to talk and interchange and listen to high school science teachers that I respect so much and their students. The opportunity to be literally connected through this virtual network with people who share my own enthusiasm and who understand that if we can continue to attract young people into these professions, there's literally nothing that we can't achieve. This is all very exciting to me and I thank Access Excellence and all of the science teachers and students for allowing me to become part of their world.

This interview was conducted December 20, 2005.

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Mike Magee, MD, is a senior fellow in the humanities to the World Medical Association, director of the Pfizer Medical Humanities Initiative, and host of Access Excellence’s “Health, Science and Society” feature, which is based on his weekly webcast, “Health Politics with Dr. Mike Magee.”

But what I did enjoy and what I thought I was pretty good at was interacting with people, reassuring them, helping them with their fears and worries, helping them look toward a positive future, helping them to understand what they needed to do for themselves and for their families.

Dr. Magee

Dr. Magee’s recent book, “Health Politics: Power, Populism and Health,” takes a look inside the megatrends that are rapidly transforming our health care system.

I found over the years that young people, especially high school students, have a lot to offer. And if I listen carefully, I learn an awful lot from them.

Dr. Magee

The entire text of Dr. Magee’s book titled “The Pfizer Medical School Manual: A Practical Guide to Getting into Medical School” is available online or in hardcopy format.

Mike Magee, MD, presents a science scholarship to St. Thomas Aquinas student Tricia Alleyne for her dedication to community service and demonstrated commitment to the field of science.



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