Q&A with Jeffrey Drazen, MD, Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine
Since July 2000, Jeffrey Drazen, MD, has served as editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). This summer, he will step down after one of the longest tenures in the history of the role.
In his New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) office at the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Countway Library, Drazen was never far from the Brigham — his clinical and research home since he first entered Peter Bent Brigham Hospital as a medical student in 1968. He credits Eugene Braunwald, MD, (then chair of the Department of Medicine) with providing him an opportunity to begin as a half-time trainee while he continued the asthma research he began in medical school.
That research and more led to hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and a profound influence on the treatment of asthma. When Drazen was tapped for the NEJM role, he had been chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine for a decade. While editor, he has continued as a senior physician and worked as an attending physician in the Medical Intensive Care Unit until 2014, and he participates frequently in medical rounds. Drazen also is chief of the Department of Medicine’s Division of Medical Communication and the Distinguished Parker B. Francis Professor of Medicine at HMS, among other appointments.
Speaking to Brigham Clinical & Research News, Drazen shares his front-row view of medicine during his time at the NEJM, offers advice to young researchers and reflects on unique qualities of the Brigham.
Q: From the editor’s chair, what changes in research and clinical medicine have you observed over nearly two decades?
JD: It comes down to this: If you get sick in 2019 with some of the most common diseases, you are much better off than you would have been 20 years ago. We now treat people in ways we might not have imagined then. Think of Hepatitis C: We used to treat people with drugs that had high toxicity and low success rates. Now, people are alive thanks to drugs that have low toxicity and high success. For acute stroke, we take patients who have suffered an acute cerebrovascular event and, through medication and clot removal, we reverse the pathology. This may not succeed 100 percent of the time and with 100 percent efficacy, but we do it often enough that we’re making more people better than we did before. We even know more about peanut allergy: We used to do everything to protect these kids from contact with peanuts. Now we know that early exposure may be protective. The primary research that underlies many of these advances was published in the NEJM and other journals.
Q:What have you liked most about being NEJM’s editor-in-chief?
JD: People send us their best research. As an editor, you get to help mold it so that it gives health professionals the best information so they can do the best job for their patients.
Q: Do you have any advice for today’s early-career physician-researchers?
JD: Find an important question, find the best technology to help answer that question, then keep at it. Good science generates the next question. Working with the best, new technology will require you to learn new things. Keep learning. But remember, you must have an important question so that funders will want to pay for the research.
I am often asked, “What should I do about my career?” My answer is always the same: Your career follows your research. If you pursue your research with a passion, everything else will follow and multiple opportunities for your career will emerge.
Q: Does the Brigham ethos of research and clinical advancement represent something specific?
What separates the Brigham from many other hospitals — and has become the model upon which many other academic hospitals were built — is that we act on the idea that new knowledge is what makes medicine better. The Brigham is dedicated to the acquisition and utility of new knowledge first in understanding the basic science of disease and then in finding new ways of bringing the science into the clinical arena. It is all through structured query and well-focused clinical research. That’s what makes the Brigham special.
Q: Do you have a favorite Brigham memory?
JD: It was January and the Brigham tower was being built [likely in 1976]. From what used to be F Main, the Men’s Ward, (now the Phyllis Jen Center for Primary Care), you could see the tower being constructed on what had been a parking lot. We’d had snow, followed by rain, then cold. The hole that was going to become the tower had filled with water and frozen.
My wife and I happened to be taking ice dancing lessons at the time. I had my skates with me because I’d been on call. At the first opportunity, I put on my skates and went out there. I skated for about 15 minutes before someone from the construction company threw me off. But I had that chance to ice skate on what became the ground floor of the tower.
Q: Now that you won’t be putting out a journal every week, will we see you around the Brigham more?
JD: No specific plans yet, but I wouldn’t rule out teaching. That would be a worthwhile pursuit for me.
Q: You have taught and trained hundreds of Brigham interns and residents in your career. What is that like?
JD: I see them all over the world! This includes Paul Farmer (MD, PhD, co-founder of Partners in Health and chief of the Brigham’s Division of Global Health Equity), Chris Murray (MD, DPhil, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington) and so many others.
Just about everywhere you go, you run into someone who was at the Brigham. They go on to lead academic medical centers around the world. It is the place to be if you want to change the practice of medicine worldwide.