Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh
In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
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photos by david kelly
It’s not for nothing that two of Pittsburgh’s largest skyscrapers are adorned with signs for major healthcare companies. Medicine is big here.
More than a third of Allegheny County’s top 50 employers are in the health care industry, with hordes of doctors, nurses and medical assistants employed by the UPMC system or the Allegheny Health Network, as well as a handful of independents in suburban communities. All combined, Allegheny County alone contains 31 hospitals, which hold more than 7,000 hospital beds.
Quantity doesn’t always indicate quality, but Pittsburgh has that, too. Last year, U.S. News and World Report ranked UPMC Presbyterian as the 13th-best hospital in the country, above the medical centers at Duke and Stanford and just behind those at Northwestern and New York University. In that same issue, U.S. News also ranked Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC as the eighth-best children’s hospital in the nation; the well-regarded rankings also gave regional accolades to both Allegheny General Hospital and Western Pennsylvania Hospital. When it comes to health-related research, few world institutions can match the University of Pittsburgh. In fiscal year 2015, Pitt ranked sixth in the country for National Institutes of Health funding, pulling in more than $430 million for research in areas such as genetics, brain health and pancreatitis.
Despite its sheer amount of high-quality care, though, western Pennsylvania still has serious health care problems that require attention. According to the Allegheny County Health Department Community Health Assessment for 2015, the region outpaces the country in smoking, alcohol abuse and other metrics related to poor health. Six communities lack primary-care doctors: the Hill District, Hazelwood, Manchester, Homewood-Brushton, North Braddock and McKeesport. Most troubling are stark racial disparities in life expectancy: The median age at death for white Allegheny County residents is 77.9 years, while it is 66.9 years for black residents.
Given those disparities, as well as the region’s rapidly aging baby-boomer population, the region’s need for health providers will remain strong. Future caregivers, including second-year medical student Chris Murawski and pulmonary and critical care fellow Dr. Rihab Saeed Sharara, will have myriad opportunities to pursue long and vibrant careers, as has Dr. Gerald Rossman, a primary care physician for more than three decades.
This month — in addition to presenting our annual list of Best Doctors — we introduce seven medical professionals whose careers, while at different stages, are thriving. They are representative of the medical opportunities and objectives found in Pittsburgh, from education to administration. In addition to the aforementioned medical student, fellow and primary care physician, we also look at the work being done by an obstetrician-gynecologist who conducts research on premature babies, a breast surgeon who operates on women with cancer, a department chair who works with students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a top-level administrator tasked with raising care standards across a health network. All practice different types of medicine, but they share one goal: improving the health of our city and region.
When Chris Murawski was playing baseball at Stroudsburg High School in Stroudsburg, Pa., he didn’t like to listen when coaches recommended that he rest his oft-injured ankle. After one particularly harsh twist, he was off to see a specialist in New York City.
Murawski became so interested in the physical therapy relating to his injury and the field of orthopaedics that he and his doctor hit it off — enough that, after he graduated from high school, his doctor offered him a chance to spend the summer learning how to conduct scientific research and shadow in the operating room and clinical environment.
Eight years later, that experience clearly has made a difference. Murawski, now 26 and entering his third year of medical school, is an author on 55 peer-reviewed studies. His research on feet, ankles and knees got him noticed by Forbes’ 2016 “30 Under 30: Healthcare” round-up.
“It’s a surprise, and it’s an honor, especially during this exciting time in medicine. You look back and say, ‘Look what was accomplished in the last 100 years without these things.’ You look forward, and it’s incredible to think that in the next 10 years we’ll probably do more than the last 100 combined,” he says, referencing medicine’s current confluence of breakthroughs in imaging, personalized medicine, big data and health care economics.
Murawski sensed that same excitement when he visited Pittsburgh to look at potential colleges for his undergraduate degree. As soon as he learned the University of Pittsburgh had accepted him, he didn’t apply anywhere else. It felt right here.
“It’s on a perpetual cusp. Something happens and then you’re waiting for the next thing. That feels like [it] characterizes Pittsburgh pretty well. There’s always something coming next,” Murawski says.
On a separate trip to New York City, Murawski met with Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Fu invited Murawski to sit in on his research meetings after his arrival at Pitt.
Fu said undergraduates tend to come to meetings and stay quiet. Murawski was different.
“Somebody like Chris makes life very easy. He came to all of the meetings, took part in the discussion and put in new ideas,” Fu says.
Murawski had planned on going straight into medical school after completing his undergraduate studies. Fu proposed something different — why didn’t Murawski join his research team for two years? Murawski acknowledges he was nervous about getting off track from his plan, but he was swayed by Fu’s legendary stature in the field of orthopaedics and sports medicine.
“Working with him was way more than research,” Murawski says. “You’re seeing a guy who has to lead a [world-renowned] department — someone who can oftentimes sway an entire city with the flick of his fingers. You don’t learn to be a thought leader, but it was interesting to learn what someone like that does and how they run their ship.”
Now Murawski is a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. It was a no-brainer for him to stay.
“This school has a culture for investigation and discovery. It’s a freedom to allow the students to [embark] on scholarly pursuit. It’s intimidating at first, but that’s the power of it,” he says.
Murawski spent his hours this spring studying for the boards; he plans to graduate in 2018. His eyes are still on orthopaedics.
Fu already is thinking ahead about working more with Murawski. Fu himself was a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“He will be much sought-after as a trainee in any program in the country. We would definitely like to see him stay in Pittsburgh if he can,” the doctor says.