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Answering the call: Paul Rothman, physician-leader

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2021 Issue 166


YSM alumnus Paul Rothman has built a career on answering the call to service in the medical profession; mentoring played a major role in his decision to pursue this path.

Over the past 11 months, Paul Rothman, MD ’84, has been extremely busy. Not that he wasn’t busy previously—but since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, he has been working even harder to ensure that his institution fulfills its obligations to patients, the community, staff members, and students. Rothman is dean of the medical faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, as well as chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM), the umbrella organization for the medical school and health system, and vice president for medicine. He oversees six academic and community hospitals, over 40 primary and specialty care practices, and numerous clinics as well as a wide range of international partnerships.

Rothman, a rheumatologist and molecular immunologist, first realized he was interested in medicine while he was an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studying molecular biology. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Yale School of Medicine that Rothman really became passionate about medicine. It was there that he took a course in immunology with Charles “Charlie” Janeway, MD, and Richard “Dick” Gershon, MD ’59, “two of the most important immunologists of our time,” as Rothman put it.

Janeway encouraged Rothman to choose immunology as a specialty. The younger man was struck by Janeway’s intense focus on how fundamental science could lead to discoveries that changed the way we care for patients. Rothman calls this experience a turning point for him. His own research has focused on cytokines, small protein molecules in the immune system that regulate the normal development of blood cells.

In Rothman’s current position, he strives to do for faculty, students, and staff members what Janeway did for him. He defines his goal as enabling people at JHM to do all they can “to help to improve the health of our patients and our communities.” He said he feels honored to work with so many exceptional people, not only saving lives but also shaping the future of medicine.

Two of the four founding doctors of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, William Stewart Halsted (BA 1874) and William H. Welch (BA 1870), attended Yale as undergraduates, and Rothman appreciates the long line of Yalies who’ve made contributions to the institution since. A number of JHM leaders spent time at YSM or Yale College, including the head of medical informatics, Peter S. Greene, MD ’85; and the director of the surgery department and the surgeon-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Robert S.D. Higgins, MD ’85. The director of the Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center and professor of neurology is Peter A. Calabresi, MD, who graduated from Yale College in 1984. Rothman’s connection to New Haven extends beyond academics. At MIT, he rowed crew, and when he was a first-year medical student at Yale, he helped to coach the lightweight crew; Calabresi was on the team at the time.

Rothman has focused on COVID-19 since the pandemic reached Baltimore in early 2020. Johns Hopkins has treated thousands of severely ill patients and is involved in a wide range of research related to the pandemic. In addition to Rothman’s concern for the well-being of patients and the wider community, he understands the importance of ensuring the safety of Hopkins’ faculty, students, and staff members. He has been profoundly impressed by the dedication and sacrifice of everyone in the JHM organization. He worries, though, about the accumulated stress and trauma inflicted by the pandemic. “The question,” he said, “is how do we come out of this as an improved country and an improved society?” As Rothman sees it, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of such academic centers of medicine as Johns Hopkins and Yale, both of which have played a crucial role in treating patients, developing treatments, and decoding the workings of the novel virus.

Rothman has also focused on racial and economic disparities in health care—gaps that have been illuminated by the current crisis. He is working both within Johns Hopkins and the communities surrounding the institution to ameliorate these historical injustices.

In recent years, Rothman and many others at Johns Hopkins have worked to find ways to make medical school more affordable and to ensure equal access to all qualified candidates. They are also pushing hard to advance precision medicine, a potentially transformative approach that allows clinicians to understand the specific requirements of patient subpopulations. This strategy is especially relevant during the pandemic: COVID-19, after all, is a relatively minor disease for many patients but severe or deadly for others.

Despite the challenges that come with the job, Rothman feels blessed to be where he is. “My career has been both a privilege and a great responsibility,” he said. Patients and communities put their lives in the hands of medical professionals, which he considers a tremendous honor. To young people interested in medicine, Rothman emphasizes the rewards of sharing in such a venerable tradition.