Rock Vomer, DO, DPT, always knew he wanted to work to improve the lives of patients. He just didn’t envision that it would be as a physician.
That changed for Dr. Vomer when his grandfather got sick. At the time, he was in the middle of a six-year accelerated program that included three years of undergraduate training and three years of physical therapy training and put him on track to earn a doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT).
“My grandfather was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy,” said Dr. Vomer said in an interview for the AMA’s “What I Wish I Knew in Medical School” series. “He and I were extremely close ... it was a very difficult time. I spent a lot of time going to appointments with him and also spending time looking at the literature to see: How do you treat this disease? What is this disease? And how do we approach managing a rare condition?
“Over the course of the next few years, that uncomfortable, painful experience of watching someone lose their functional ability and being exposed to multiple doctors at multiple major centers in the country, and the research—it really changed my mind about what I should be doing with my time. I thought that PT [physical therapy] is great, it works on functional things, but it doesn't solve those medical problems. So I completed my DPT and then I went right into medical school.”
Having completed his primary care sports fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine in July, Dr. Vomer is at the end of a journey that saw him training for his career from 18 to 32. He offered insight on what it takes to effectively change gears from one health professions career to another, and why the decision might be a worthwhile one for those considering it.
“The reason I initially went the PT route is because I may have had a misconception about what physician career paths look like,” said Dr. Vomer, the lead physician for Advanced Care in Wilmington, North Carolina.
“I wanted to be in a clinic working with athletes, doing research for sports. I never even thought medicine was a real interest of any of mine. And then, after going through a really uncomfortable scenario with my family and seeing how the process works—how you work with the doctors, just how incredible some of these people are as human beings. They really showed my grandfather such care and compassion, but also they're brilliant,” Dr. Vomer said.
“Some of the folks at Mayo Clinic [in Rochester, Minnesota], which is where he was treated, the time and the energy that they put into just caring for him and my family and applying high-level science and research to patient care, it completely blew me away and totally changed the trajectory of my life.
Dr. Vomer “didn't know that was a part of medicine. I didn't think of what it was because, before that, my relationship with medicine was pretty benign and not impressive at all. You go to the doctor, you punch in, you punch out, and a lot of checkbox medicine. And then I saw what they were doing there, and I was like: I want to be just like those people.”
“I don't know how many people get a doctorate and then immediately go back into school,” said Dr. Vomer, who graduated from Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Blacksburg, Virginia. “I literally graduated on a Friday, and I started med school on a Monday. I came into med school with a doctorate degree, and then I left med school at 28 with two doctoral degrees.
“The timing was very difficult. I was preparing for the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] during grad school, which was very difficult and that was something I didn't know—because I didn't know how much time it actually took to prep for an MCAT. And then also too, getting time off to do interviews.
“You're in the middle of a graduate training program for a doctoral degree where you do clinical education, where you're in the clinic seeing patients like a resident almost, so you have to take time off there,” noted Dr. Vomer. “You also have to take time off a class to coordinate, and that's very difficult just from a time-constraint standpoint for what you need to do to graduate.”
Dr. Vomer, an AMA member, said his time training for his DPT “set such a strong foundation of learning and how to time-manage and be with patients.”
“It exponentially made medical school easier because I already knew how to interview patients, I already knew how to document, I already knew how to do exams,” Dr. Vomer said. “Developing those skills for the course of that training program ... it really helped set a great foundation for med school.”
Those lessons from his DPT training translated into Dr. Vomer’s primary care and sports medicine practice.
“The PT foundation set such a strong foundation for clinical examination, history-taking, how to work with patients,” he said. “And it gave you such an insight into the other health care providers—like the way they work, what their skill set is, how to best play in the team and communicate going into med school. It set a foundation there.”
“Now when I see my patients, they get to see a board-certified family doc, a board-certified sports med doc, and a physical therapist in one appointment,” Dr. Vomer noted. “I do everything the doctors would do, plus what the PTs would do in terms of exercise prescription and all of the modalities that they do—it's all built into my practice. So I think it's just a beautiful combination of putting all of the skills together under one roof.”
“When you're occupied in training for as long as I was, I think the biggest cost is the time,” Dr. Vomer said. “A lot of my fraternity brothers and my friends from college, their life was in full swing when I was starting med school. And they're married, they're having kids. They're starting their life and building their life with their spouse.
“And then I'm in med school taking tests in my mid- to late-20s and then in residency training and fellowship training, still taking tests and doing homework assignments and studying. You inevitably miss holidays, you miss trips, you miss vacations because that's the price you pay for training that long. It did weigh [me] down.
“I’m lucky to have met my wife in med school,” Dr. Vomer said. “Since she is also a doc, we have to really be effective with our scheduling and our time management to make sure we see our family members and do as best as we can on the social side of things and the personal life of things because you are dedicating your life to training to help other people.”
“I love what I do and the time that goes into it,” Dr. Vomer said. “I couldn't imagine not spending my time on it because I just love doing it. It's of interest to me. It genuinely makes me happy to do the patient care and spend time with the patient.”
Dr. Vomer believes that his DPT training prior to medical school afforded him some skills to so far help avert the burnout that half of U.S. physicians report experiencing.
“Going through PT school set me up for protective measures to ward it off—like time-management skills, how you actually study, how you prepare for these exams, having to go through high-stakes exams before.”
“You have to make sure you're happy, and you have to be happy in what you're doing,” Dr. Vomer said. “If you're not, it doesn't matter how much somebody's paying you to do something, because if you're miserable, you're miserable, and there isn't an amount of money that's going to make that go away.”
If switching from another health profession to pursue a physician career is on your radar, “you need to make sure you have a really good why,” Dr. Vomer advised. “Why are you going to do the extra time and the extra cost and the extra pressure? And it has to justify putting a portion of your life on hold.
“Having that why, that reason you are doing this, that's what's going to keep you going through the difficult portions of it,” he added. “If you have a difficult block in school or a difficult rotation, or when you're a resident and you're working the super-long hours and you're doing everything that is a requirement of being a resident, you have to have a good why. If not, you're going to break.”