Clinical Review

How I Became a Derm Guru (And How You Can, Too)

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Many years ago, when I was still in primary care (internal medicine), I thought I knew a bit about the practice of medicine. I was totally comfortable in the hospital (in those days, we saw our own patients twice a day in the hospital), including the ER, the OR, even obstetrics. MIs, shootings, stab wounds, renal failure—I would never say I had mastered them, but I was comfortable with most of what I saw. Deliveries, assisting with C-sections, performing lumbar punctures, performing and interpreting exercise tolerance tests, performing flexible sigmoidoscopies—no problem.

But the one thing that nearly always stopped me in my tracks was … you guessed it: dermatology complaints. Rashes, lesions, or any other skin complaint the least bit out of the ordinary were completely baffling to me. I still remember that feeling after all these years (and I still occasionally experience it!).

I felt like saying to those patients: What in the world would make you think I’d have any idea what that is? But of course, I couldn’t say that, so I’d mumble something, throw some cream at it, then quickly change the subject. Mind you, this was in a setting where a derm referral from us would take 4 to 6 months. And in case you’re wondering, the other providers in my department were as bad at derm as I was.

Long story short, it got to the point that I would scan my schedule every morning, praying I wouldn’t see the word “rash” or “skin.” But, of course, they still came—often just as my hand touched the doorknob to leave: “Oh, by the way, what about this …?” You get the picture. Many of you, if not most, live that picture.

I finally got up the nerve to go to our dermatology department to ask if I could follow one of the docs while he saw patients. Little did I know that practically every provider in the building had already done the same, and had been dismissed with words that essentially meant, “You? A mere PA? You can’t get there from here. Just send ’em to us.”

For a short time, I bought that line—but in the meantime, my patients were not getting the care they needed. So, driven in part by anger at the notion that a mere PA was simply unable to learn dermatology, I bought a decent textbook, Fitzpatrick’s Color Atlas of Dermatology, and started reading it. I also started collecting all the derm articles I could find in the journals, and read about those cases.

I won’t bore you with the grimy details, but what I did differently was work at learning derm (what a concept!). I started going to derm conferences, bought a good camera and started taking pictures with it, and continued to buy books (this was in the pre-computer days of the ’80s) and actually read them.

Continue to: And a funny thing happened...


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