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An Emerging Voice in American Medicine

6.22.15

Brian Powers is a rising fourth-year student in the MD-MBA program that Harvard Medical School jointly runs with the Business School.

Brian Powers is a rising fourth-year student in the MD-MBA program that Harvard Medical School jointly runs with the Business School.

Courtesy of Brian Powers

At age 27, Harvard Medical School student Brian Powers has a CV that could make a junior faculty member jealous.

A rising fourth-year student in the MD-MBA program that Harvard Medical School (HMS) jointly runs with the Business School, Powers has published 20 academic articles, many of which have made their way into some of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. He also serves as deputy editor of the Elsevier-published Health Care: The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation.

HMS faculty say that Powers has already made a real impact on America’s healthcare system by articulating his ideas in journals that are well-read among medical professionals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. His research and writing focus on a wide range of topics, including health care reform, high-value care, physician leadership, medical education, and race and medicine. Though many HMS students take advantage of opportunities to write academic articles, most publish one or two during their student years. Powers’ prodigious output is usually only achieved by faculty members, said Dean for Students Nancy E. Oriol, an associate professor of anaesthesia.

Powers is “a rare intellect in a generation,” said Sachin Jain, Chief Medical Officer at the CareMore Health System and a former lecturer at the Medical School. “You think about the fact that he’s only a third year medical student, you just really wonder what this guy can accomplish over the course of what will certainly be a brilliant career.” What sets Powers apart from his peers, he said, is his intellectual maturity and keen understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by the healthcare system. Powers has not only the passion to probe the issues that he cares deeply about, but also the discipline to follow through his endeavors. 

For Powers, writing is an "enjoyable" supplementary activity that allows him to engage in an alternative way of thinking amidst rigorous clinical training. The flexibility of writing and research makes his extracurricular work akin to that of a freelancer: he is able to carve out time from his schedule whenever possible, sometimes working through pieces on his walk to the hospital, or during a run.

The son of a physician and a chemist, Powers studied history at Bowdoin College as an undergraduate, writing his senior thesis on black physicians who practiced before the Civil War. This work focused on the unthinkable odds these individuals faced in becoming physicians in this era, and on the interplay between professional life and racial activism. A modified version of this paper was published as  “Practice and Protest: Black Physicians and the Evolution of Race-Conscious Professionalism” in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

The skills he no doubt developed as a student in the humanities—the ability to digest complex themes, formulate coherent ideas, and put them into words—appear to have served him well in his writing endeavors as a medical student. Sreekanth Chaguturu, an instructor in medicine, observed that Powers is a “precocious” author who approaches writing as a craft, and is adept at translating complex ideas into accessible prose. “I’ve not seen that ability even among people who have been doing healthcare policy research for decades,” he declared. Chaguturu remembered the thoughtful and nuanced approach that Powers took in a paper they co-wrote, “Optimizing High-risk Care Management,” which he said has received national attention. It was a topic that “could have easily been inflammatory, but it was written in a very constructive style that allowed for the progression of debate,” he recalled.

When in college it came time for Powers to decide on a career path, medicine emerged as a clear choice. But he also thought hard about pursuing graduate studies in history, and even considered going into the hospitality industry. Throughout his high school and undergraduate years, Powers worked in restaurants ranging from a small bakery-café in his hometown, St. Louis—where a sandwich is named after him—to the upscale restaurant Gramercy Tavern in New York City. He said these experiences have taught him more about how to engage with patients and function on a team than anything he learned in his college pre-med curriculum or even during the first two years of medical school. He credits his experience in the hospitality industry with teaching him how to get along with diverse individuals, and to “have a thick skin.”

Ultimately, he chose a career in medicine because that allowed him the interpersonal interaction he loved during his work in the hospitality industry, as well as the academic focus and research opportunities that initially drew him to history. “It's a perfect marriage of my most deeply held interests,” he explained. But his varied experiences, seemingly unrelated to the medical field, proved to be invaluable assets at HMS.“A good physician and a good leader has to be a humanist, a social scientist, and a good natural scientist,” said Neel Shah, an assistant professor at the Medical School who has worked with Powers. “Brian has it all.”

Powers graduated from Bowdoin in 2010, the year the Affordable Care Act was passed. Eager to learn more about the complex American healthcare system and how it was changing, he decided to take time off before medical school to work at the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit in Washington D.C. that advises the nation on a variety of healthcare issues. He said this two-year stint at the organization was akin to a fellowship in domestic health policy, giving him broad exposure to the challenges facing the U.S. healthcare system, and the most promising opportunities for improvement. His HMS mentors said they were impressed by the fact that on day one of Power’s medical school career, he already possessed keen understanding of key American healthcare issues.

Powers said his achievements so far are, more than anything, the result of fruitful relationships with mentors who are willing to let him “run with ideas” and elevate him beyond the role of a typical research assistant. One of these mentors is Sachin Jain ’02, a graduate of the MD-MBA program that Powers is enrolled in. Powers first approached Jain a few years ago asking for career advice, and the two started meeting regularly. “Our interests overlap quite beautifully,” Jain said. “What I found was more than a student, but a real partner in pursuing some ideas that both of us were interested in around healthcare policy and reform.” The outputs of their collaboration—more than 10 co-authored papers—have appeared in some of the top medical journals in the world. For Jain, mentorship is about “finding a match” and having the commitment to build a lasting relationship. Powers’ mentors described these relationships as two-way exchanges: working with him has taught them lessons as well.

Powers’ advice for aspiring medical students is to “seek out meaningful experiences”, and not be constrained by the “box-checking” so often characteristic of a pre-med scholastic track: take pre-med classes; sit for the MCAT; volunteer at a hospital; work in a lab; publish a paper. The sense that one is being evaluated all the time breeds “unsavory and contrived behaviors,” as Powers wrote in the article “Medical Education’s Authenticity Problem.” These pressures are counterproductive to the ideal outcome of a medical education: an authentic doctor in tune with the self and adept at communicating with patients. For Powers, it was his “non-standard” experiences, such as serving restaurant customers and learning about Civil-War history, that helped him discover his true passions and interests.

Friends and mentors, and even Powers himself, find it difficult to predict where he will be in ten years. They can see him equally competent as physician, policymaker, or academic. Jay Kumar, a friend, compared Powers to a pluripotent stem cell: one that has the potential to evolve into many different cell types in the body. Jain is confident that, regardless of which profession he ends up entering, Powers will be “a sure leader in American medicine.” “He’s got the intellect, the human touch, and the drive,” Jain said, “to become someone whose ideas and actions are really going to transform healthcare delivery.”

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