Should Doctors be Scientists? 10 Reasons Why

by Ryan Winter on April 26, 2010


“Some doctors are scientists – just as some politicians are scientists – but most are not,” writes Richard Smith. The former British Medical Journal editor notes that such doctors’ exposure to science starts, and often ends, in med school.

A pity, since having and using a scientific background in daily clinical work could yield benefits for both doctor and patient.

With a science background, a doctor can question, experiment, and generate conclusions he or she might not have otherwise had the benefit of. Such benefits tend to turn clinicians into more curious people: “the kind of people who brush their teeth on only one side of their mouth to see whether brushing your teeth has any benefit,” as Smith puts it. Mixing science with medicine also tends to lead to innovation, career fulfillment, and breakthroughs in both fields.

With that in mind, here are 10 discussions to consider when it comes to adding a scientific outlook to a days’ doctoring:

1. Training and practicing as a scientist can allow a doctor to “critically appraise” and reap the benefits of peer-reviewed studies, as Smith writes in a lively 2004 British Medical Journal editorial.

2. A group of MDs recently argued in the Annals of Internal Medicine that scientific methods are at all modern physicians’ disposal and can be better used in daily practice to improve clinical settings. Here’s a look at what they recommend:

3. In a bid to do something about the infiltration of pseudoscience (from astrology to the paranormal) into the medical profession, a group of MDs have formed On the site, they’ve compiled a list of medical schools they feel have let these pseudoscientific medical practices into their programs, out of interest to inform and educate.

4. An editorial in the journal Science suggests that science education of physicians needs to catch up with the advances in research. ”The current list of required premedical school courses should be replaced with required science competencies,” suggests one of the editorial’s called-for reforms.

5. Having a science background could also help doctors instill more confidence in patients. One patient on the forum section of TechIMO wonders if his wife’s doctor guesses the diagnosis.

What’s important about this is not whether or not the doctor actually is just going-through-the-motions with diagnosis (hopefully not) but rather the perception that said doctor is not using a methodical approach. Having a solid scientific background could help instill more confidence in such patients.

6. A study of Finnish medical and dental student diploma theses – considered an important component of scientific training – concluded that “the theses were seldom written according to the principles of scientific communication and the proportion of actually published was small.” Check out the full text, including some of the study’s other findings:

7. A passionate explanation by Jonathan A. Epstein, Deputy Editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation and President of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, on why public funding for science is important for America. (In Epstein’s words, it ignites economic growth while at the same time enhancing quality of life.)

8. A look at the emergence of the physician-scientist in America: Renowned influenza researcher and geneticist Edwin Kilbourne wrote about this notion as far back as 1986. Today, the American Physician Scientists Association offers specific career advice and training for doctors who want to develop a science background:

9. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has advice for medical students who can’t decide if they want to be a doctor or a scientist: why not both? This article on the path to becoming a physician-scientist includes a list of schools in the U.S. that have MD/PhD programs.

10. A physician questionnaire suggests that a majority of family doctors do not use evidence based practice, and what’s more they are wary of it because of “erosion of physician autonomy,” “scarcity of evidence in reproductive health,” “it is time consuming,” “obstetrics requires manual dexterity more than science,” and “evidence based medicine ignores clinical experience.” Take a closer look at some of the challenges perceived by physicians when it comes to being scientists as well as doctors:



Medicine and science intersect in fascinating ways,says Science author Rod Ulane, noting that a joint medical and scientific education can place you in a unique and exciting position to transfer clinical observation to widespread discovery.


Science and medicine are interdependent, and they impact each other with often surprising and beneficial consequences, says Ulane. For those captivated by this dance of medicine and science, there is a third career path, that of the physician-scientist.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bobby Gandy 02.03.11 at 9:36 pm

Having spent some time placing clinical research professionals into various positions, I have been surprised at the number of physicians who are interested in redirecting their careers toward research and scientific investigation. Many of these physicians come from various specialities but are often more than willing to take a pay cut to pursue their passion for this.


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