Dr. Singh: The moment I knew medicine was my calling


Physicians are privileged to see patients at their most vulnerable, to reshape lives and continually revitalize the nation’s health system. In a challenging practice environment, physicians remain driven by the power of healing and the indelible connections they form with patients and families.

The AMA Wire® “When I Knew I Medicine Was My Calling” series profiles a wide variety of doctors, offering a glimpse into the lives of the busy women and men navigating new courses in their careers and in American medicine. No matter their age, their specialty or their career stage, they were born to do this and they tell us why.

Share a moment with: Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH, chief of the health policy, quality and informatics program at the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness, and Safety, Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center; associate professor of medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

I was born to: Improve patient safety.

The moment I knew medicine was my calling: I told my parents I wanted to be a doctor at the age of 4. Growing up in India,  I was inspired by my grandfather, a civil surgeon and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, U.K.. This was a highly prestigious and rare achievement for an Indian in the early 1900s..

An experience from residency that confirmed my calling as a physician: The day I realized I wanted to be a generalist physician, i.e. the one most responsible for making a correct and timely clinical diagnosis. Also, I couldn’t bear the thought of narrowing my career to just one body part or specialty and missing out on the rest.

An experience from medical school that kept me going: Learning the art and science of diagnosis from some of the best professors in the world at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.

My source of inspiration: Using research evidence to generate solutions for complex health care problems, such as misdiagnosis, preventable patient harm and use of health information technology (IT). I must add that recent sources of inspiration for our team include recognition through prestigious national research awards, a testament to our work on using science to improve policy and practice.

My hope for the future of medicine: I hope that we will listen to patients, show humility, and use technology safely and effectively.

The hardest moment in medicine and how I got past it: This is not really one specific moment, but it took me years to transform from a full-time primary care physician practicing in rural East Texas to a federally funded patient safety researcher with a mission to improve health care. I initially failed on 12 grant submissions, with rejections from all the granting agencies you can think of. With the help of some great mentors, collaborators and team members, I was able to make this difficult transition to become a researcher focusing on reducing diagnostic errors and improving patient safety and the use of health IT.

My favorite experience working with the medical team: Our weekly multidisciplinary team meetings at our research center in Houston have the most lively discussions and debates on how best to do high-impact research to help reduce patient misdiagnosis and optimize the use of electronic health records (EHR).

The most challenging aspects of caring for patients: Taking a pause to reflect; learning and improving from the many missed opportunities where we could have done better.

The most rewarding aspect of caring for patients: Using both art and science effectively to make a correct and timely diagnosis so patients can get the treatment they need.

The skills every physician should have but won’t be tested for on the board exam: Humility; curiosity, effective communication and teamwork; and yes, the skills to use your EHR correctly and completely.

One question students should ask themselves before pursuing medicine: Do I have the passion to solve the health and healthcare problems of today and what types of problems will I solve?

A quick insight I’d give students who are considering medicine: Be prepared to transform  the practice of medicine; learn to manage uncertainty; learn from your failures; stay focused on your mission, which is to heal patients; and remember to consider the future health of our planet.

Mantra to describe my life in medicine: These are not mantras, as such, but these attributes have helped me the most thus far in my life and in my career: Develop your discipline, stay with your passion, learn to persevere. And, if you become a researcher: publishing papers is insufficient to make an impact; you need to work with clinicians, patients and health systems to translate your discoveries to improve health and health care.