Dr. Robert Winn wears many hats. Rob is an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Critical Care and the Vice Chair for Career Development, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine as well as the Associate Dean of Admissions for the School of Medicine.
What is your hometown?
I call Buffalo, New York home. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York; South Bend, Indiana; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. For the last 14 years I’ve been in Denver, Colorado.
How did you become interested in science and medicine?
For me science and medicine was not an obvious road. There are other people who will tell you they’ve been interested in these subjects since kindergarten, that was not my case. It turns out that my first interest in becoming a physician didn’t happen until well into college and that wasn’t even because of me, my dreams and ambitions when I was growing up was to become the youngest foreman at GM. That was my ambition in life and luckily that didn’t work out! So it wasn’t until I ran into Father Walters and Father Austin at University of Notre Dame who, in some ways, decided for me that I should be thinking about pre-med. At the time, as a young minority student I didn’t know of any minority physicians, so becoming a physician did not seem plausible to me. It took some cajoling from both Father Joseph Walter, CSC, and Father Rober Austgen, CSC, to convince me to at least take some classes. Once I did that and wound up getting offers to a lot of medical schools it then become more of a reality. Once I got into medical school I was absolutely certain I was just going to do primary care and nothing that had to do with science. I remember having conversations with lots of faculty around Michigan at that time; Dr. Carol Kauffman; Dr. Francis Collins; and others. They would tell you they knew before I did that I would be taking the road down the science path. I was just naïve, medical school opened my eyes to other things of which I clearly had no concept. It showed me the importance of mentoring; sometimes mentors see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. I would never have become a physician unless I had people looking out for me and clearly would not have pursued a career in the basic sciences without other mentors. I was in residency with Dr. Stu Levine, Dr. Roger Bone, and Dr. Robert Bulk, a group of stars who were really amazing critical care people and really good scientists who got me stoked about science.
Why did you choose pulmonary critical care?
Pulmonary people were the ones I was most impressed with. Pulmonary critical care doctors were rolling up their sleeves and trying to prevent dying people from dying. When they couldn’t save people they had the ability to allow people to pass with a sort of dignity, even in an ICU, and bring some closure to the family. I thought that was the coolest freaking job in the world! Everything was critical so everything mattered. It wasn’t just “take a pill and we’ll see if that rash goes away in two weeks”, rather it was “do this today or this patient might not do so well.” As a young physician, that brought an adrenaline rush and a sense of impact when I saw the job done well. It was ridiculously cool and that’s why I originally chose pulmonary critical care.
What interested you to pursue a career as an Associate Professor, Associate Dean, and Vice Chair?
My life is not what I would recommend any young person to do. The traditional path is to do one thing and to do it really well but I’ve always been involved in multiple things since I was a kid. While people on the outside might look at me and ask how I can be a dean, which is an administrative role, and take care of patients and also do research. They wonder, “aren’t those three things disconnected from one another?” My answer would be that’s just ridiculous because they’re absolutely connected in every way. The foundation of my role is being a physician, from that we need to look at replenishing the future by inspiring and engaging future physicians to care for the patients that we so love now. By the same token, we need to look into the future again and try to come up with cures or at least the basis for scientific rationale, reasoning, and concepts that will influence taking care of patients in the future. For me, my various roles are not totally different silos, it is really the complete and whole physician, looking towards the future while understanding the present is absolutely critical. I am completely consumed and immersed in the care of the patients I see, 100%. But if we don’t look towards the future, how do we get new doctors to take care of patients and how do we come up with new cures? And why should that be a division of labor, why can’t it be us? We should own that. As a result of this concept, I am led to be able to do multiple things and find them not disconnected but rather very connected.
Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?
Do good for other people, bottom line. I see a physician as being a lifelong servant to others, period. If I’m doing that well then everything else falls into place. The way I deal with patients is connected to the way I try to inspire young people in my role as dean. My role as scientist is to do the best possible science. And I may not be the smartest, I may not get us there, but at least the small contributions I make add to the conversation. Hopefully somebody someday who is smarter than I am can take what I do and be able to apply it directly to patient care. I don’t see professional development in the traditional context, I see it as a development of me as a person and my ability to serve others and challenge myself to do an even better job, that’s the fun part of what we do.
What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?
There are several. One, there’s a lot more rules, regulations, guidelines, and oversight. When I was a student it was still during a time where we didn’t have as much oversight so we got to do a lot more hands-on direct patient care. Another difference is that we didn’t have the concept of shift work, I still don’t. I don’t get the concept of a physician coming on, they have a patient, they work for 12 hours, then boom, they sign off their patient. I came from the era in which you saw your patient all the way through. There were no duty hours, you just took care of your patient. Some days I stayed for two days that the patient was there because I was that concerned. Another change today is an increase in didactic learning, a lot more lectures than when I was in school, then it was much more of an apprenticeship. We were under the impression that if you learn everything about your patient then you learn everything about medicine.
Why did you choose the University of Colorado?
I came here for a fellowship in 1997 as a green, dreamy resident because it was the number one pulmonary critical care program. It was the best, hands down, the most creative and innovative and largest in the country. All of the superstars were here, all of the “Michael Jordan”s were concentrated in one location between University Hospital, National Jewish, Denver Health, and the VA. I joined the faculty in 2001.
What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?
I think one advantage that you get from being academic faculty as opposed to being in private practice is that you’re able to really make the kind of impacts on people that you can’t if you’re essentially just seeing patients every day. For example, my ability to hopefully effect future change in the direction of science couldn’t be done in a regular private practice setting. The ability for me to want to cure lung cancer or at least add another strategy and a different way of approaching lung cancer could not be done as a private practicing physician. The other thing is, the context of me being an admissions dean hugely impacts the future of medicine in ways that I would not be able to do entirely if I were in private practice. I think those avenues have opened up worlds for me to allow me to extend the oath I took to do no harm to patients, just in a different way. Making sure that we pick the best and the brightest candidates to come to medical school actually isn’t just a process or protocol for me, it’s an extension of the oath I took as a physician.
What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?
Quit focusing so much on the money. Focus and drill down on the fact that being a physician is literally about learning how to be a good servant for people. I think we can get so focused on the physician that we forget that the real story is about the patient. Make sure you always recognize it’s not about you, it’s about the patient. It’s nice to make money, becoming a physician doesn’t mean you take an oath of poverty but at the same time I think there’s been a misplacement of why folks want to become physicians. They say it’s a secure financial investment but that’s crazy because it’s more about learning how to be in service which means sometimes you make personal sacrifices for the benefit of other people. Being a physician is really learning how to be a lifelong servant to others. If people could really internalize that fact it might keep some people out of the profession but it would probably keep those in the profession happier.
If you could change one thing about the world of medicine, what would it be?
If I could change anything about medicine right now it would be to make things much less bureaucratic and much more focused on human beings. Touching humans, being with humans, allowing our students to actually know that having responsibility, while stressful, is good – that would be what I would change. I recognize that the regulations and all of those things are probably good but I also recognize that we’ve also lost something. Having paperwork rather than the patient be the center of the world prevents this from being the kind of apprenticeship that it probably used to be and needs to be.
What do you see as "the future" of medicine?
I’m not certain. I’m relatively optimistic that the future of medicine is going to have more technology and greater understanding of disease processes. With the advent of genomics and proteomics and all these things it will hopefully bring wonderful gifts to the table that actually cure diseases used to be impossible to cure. Knowledge of the human body and what happens on a genetic level will clearly be greater. But if at the end of the day technology is the end all and be all and we forget there’s a patient, we would not have made any progress. I think most young physicians and the people that we’re recruiting today really do think that they can change the world so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they keep the passion to do it.
What are some of your outside interests?
My family; Jamal is a 12 year old guy and Leila is 10 going on 30, they’re pretty awesome. My wife, Dr. Dianne Ansari-Winn is also a physician, a very accomplished one in fact. She’s a private practicing anesthesiologist and a very interesting person. She’s very global; Dianne does health coaching and uses integrative medicine approaches. I also enjoy going to all the restaurants around Denver and appreciate good music, movies, books, all the regular things.
Click here to view the CV of Rob Winn, M.D.