My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Rahul Rajkumar, MD, JD, FACP
Current Position: Senior Advisor, Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation
Medical School: Yale University
Law School: Yale University
Residency: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston
“Lightning in a bottle”
From the Urban Dictionary:
• Capturing something powerful and elusive and then being able to hold it and show it to the world.
• Performing a rare feat.
• A moment of creative brilliance.
In 2008, when President Obama was elected to his first term as President of the United States, his senior campaign advisor David Axelrod described the victory as “lightning in a bottle.” The electrifying experience and sentiment was shared by everyone connected to the Obama campaign, including Rahul Rajkumar, MD, JD, FACP.
Five years later, the elation in Dr. Rajkumar’s voice can still be heard. “Even now,” he says, “when I see others from the campaign, I just want to give them a hug. It truly was a historic moment, something I will tell my grandchildren about.”
Dr. Rajkumar’s involvement with the campaign began when he was completing his medical residency at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a few law school friends approached him and asked if he would join the campaign’s health care policy committee. As a graduate of Yale University’s combined MD-JD program and an enthusiastic advocate for health care reform, Dr. Rajkumar was an ideal recruit.
A man with many hats
What kind of person pursues a medical degree and law degree simultaneously? Someone who is very smart, extremely focused, who wants to serve the health care system at the policy/leadership level. Someone like Dr. Rajkumar, who says he was encouraged to pursue the dual degree program by another doctor-lawyer, Dr. David Kessler, who was then Dean of Yale University’s Medical School and former Commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration.
After working on the campaign and the Presidential transition team, Dr. Rajkumar went to work for McKinsey & Company, a strategic consulting firm, where he helped hospital executives and health care payers respond to new health care policies. His work with payers, i.e., the business side of medicine, brought his experience full circle. With his unique background in the areas of medicine, law, politics, and business he was well-positioned to take on the responsibilities of his current position as Senior Advisor to the Director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation is charged with moving the nation’s health care system away from its current fee-for-service model to more innovative payment/delivery models made possible by the Affordable Care Act—models such as Accountable Care Organizations, Bundled Care, and the Primary Care Initiative. “A fee-for-service system creates incentives that increase volume and fragmentation of care,” says Dr. Rajkumar. “In my work at the Center, we are testing new ways for paying and delivering care that will ultimately lead to improved quality and lower costs.”
From books to baseball
Born in the Queens section of New York City to physician parents who moved to the United States from New Delhi, India, and then later growing up in upstate New York, Dr. Rajkumar knew that he always wanted to be a doctor. When it came time to choose his discipline, he says, “I loved pathophysiology and the reasoning style of internists, their level of thinking is so deep.”
Dr. Rajkumar’s passion for medicine was cultivated by some very accomplished mentors, beginning with his parents who are both internists. His mother is a geriatrician, his father is a pulmonary-critical care specialist, and both are ACP Fellows. In fact, Dr. Rajkumar and his father applied for fellowship at the same time and are hoping to walk together at next year’s convocation ceremony in Orlando.
“My parents viewed education as the way to invent oneself,” says Dr. Rajkumar. “They invested a lot in my education—sending me to private schools and tutoring me; I even recall my father taking me into a medical lab when I was five years old to show me throat cultures under a microscope.” He describes himself as a passionate student and voracious reader; and, his childhood trips to India instilled in him an ethos of service to others. Growing up, he also developed a passion for baseball and is still an avid New York Mets fan. “Being a Mets fan builds character,” he says.
Relationships, the right stuff
Mentors also build character, and Dr. Rajkumar is grateful for the many great doctors he has met along the way. In addition to the influence of Dr. Kessler and his parents, Dr. Jim Kim served as an important mentor for Dr. Rajkumar during his time working as an advisor to the World Health Organization. Dr. Kim is now President of the World Bank. Another friend and mentor is Richard Baron, MD, MACP, whom he met at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and who is now President & CEO of ABIM.
Dr. Rajkumar’s advice to medical students is “focus like a laser on becoming a great doctor, it is the single most important thing.” When asked what makes a doctor “great,” he replies, “A great doctor possesses scientific acumen, an ability to listen, and a willingness to help others.”
Dr. Rajkumar’s willingness to help others extends beyond his policy work. He is also a practicing internist who sees patients at the Washington, DC Veterans Administration Medical Center. Dr. Rajkumar says clinical medicine remains at his core. “Medicine is about service to others. To this day, I am humbled when patients allow me to step into their lives.”
The task of reforming the nation’s health care payment system would seem a daunting task, one of those all-consuming pursuits that can swallow a person whole, but Dr. Rajkumar finds balance in his relationships as a husband, father, and doctor. He is married to Kiran Ghia, a litigator who practices international law. The couple has a 20-month-old son and is currently expecting their second child.
In his spare time (what little there is), he loves to read, especially long-form journalism and nonfiction. He also likes to run and enjoys downhill skiing. He likes telling his friends, “I believe myself to be the best Indian American downhill skier in the country,” and then laughs in acknowledgment that he has perhaps set the bar low, since he has met very few skiers from the Indian American community.
Being part of a community is important to Dr. Rajkumar, which is why he joined ACP. “Both medicine and the way in which we deliver care is changing rapidly, and the pace of change is going to accelerate,” he says, “it is important to be part of a professional community that can be a source of information and support amidst the change.”
From “lightning in a bottle” to “focus like a laser,” the imagery of light well describes a brilliant career. As we navigate the waters of change, there are stars among us who lend us their light. Dr. Rahul Rajkumar—son, husband, father, physician, lawyer—the man of many hats, who laughs easily and aspires to be a “great doctor” is one of them.
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