When considering a health care profession, it helps to talk to a professional who has experience in your potential career. We recently interviewed Anisha Patel, M.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Dermatology, Division of Internal Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She was able to share her experience in the field and explain why she made the jump from engineering to medicine.
ExploreHealthCareers.org (EHC): Why did you choose dermatology?
Anisha Patel (AP): Dermatology is one of the few specialties where you totally own that organ system. Dermatologists heal everything related to the skin. We focus on its cancer, inflammation, infection and injury. We even do our own surgeries and pathologies. You get to fully understand an organ system which is an opportunity you don’t get with other specialties. Because of that, it’s a satisfying field to work in since you can see the direct effect of work that you’re doing every time you see a patient.
EHC: What subspecialty did you choose? What does it entail?
AP: At MD Anderson Cancer Center, all the health care professionals are super specialized because we work at a cancer hospital. In the center, all the dermatologists deal with all the things cancer patients have, like melanoma and skin cancers. We also treat the side effects on their skin, hair and nails from skin therapies. A lot of times, patients are not able to tolerate the chemotherapy because of these negative side effects. And if there are complications when people have radiation therapy or surgery, we manage the skin part of it. Another instance is when people have bone marrow or stem cell transplants, then their immune system is suppressed. This makes them susceptible to getting skin infections and skin cancer because their system isn’t working. It’s a narrow area of dermatology that I practice in and I don’t see anyone who doesn’t have cancer.
EHC: You have an education in engineering. How did you jump from that STEM profession to this one?
AP: When I was in undergrad, I took some pre-med classes, but ultimately received my engineering degree. When you’re an undergrad in engineering, you don’t have a sense what it’s like to be an actual engineer. I enjoyed working in the field, but I wasn’t getting the autonomy and personal interaction that you get from working in medicine. My father was a physician, so I knew what being in the field was like and had that to compare with my engineering experience. After working in engineering for a couple years, I went back to school to get my medical degree.
It’s fun because I’m still an engineer — there’s always a new patient with a new problem to solve. You’re gathering as much information you can and trying to figure out what the diagnosis is, like an engineer does.
EHC: The fact that you want to work with people seems to be one of the biggest differences between both careers.
AP: It’s very different. In engineering, I was by myself in an office doing work or sitting in meetings. In other fields, you don’t get that personal relationship and interaction you have with your patients. In most STEM fields it’s hard to find areas where you get to do so much science and have personal relationships with people.
EHC: And some of those people that you have developed relationships with are staff that is on your health care team? Does this also include other dermatologists?
AP: It’s funny because I rarely speak to another dermatologist during the day, but I am constantly with other health care professionals. On my team, I have a registered nurse (RN) and a medical assistant, as well as a dermatology resident and a medical student. Down the hall from us are medical oncologists and surgical oncologists. Often times we’ll see the same patient, but we’ll all be providing different forms of medical assistance for that person. We talk to each other all the time and determine the next steps together.
EHC: What’s some advice for a student who is interested in dermatology?
AP: Be thoughtful about what makes you happy and what work you might find satisfying. The easy part is finding a job that matches the things you enjoy. The hard part is looking inside yourself and figuring out what you actually care about. In medical school I thought for sure I was going to be a surgeon, then I realized I didn’t like being in the operating room and that I wouldn’t have a close relationship with my patients. Once you’re aware of what’s important to you, it’s easier to evaluate if dermatology is the right field for you.
Interested in learning more about dermatology? Check out our interview with dermatologist Nada Elbuluk, MD, MSc, FAAD here.