“The Best Doctors Are Those Who Doubt.” With Bianca L. Rodriguez And Dr. Alison Potok

As part of my series about leadership lessons from successful medical professionals, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Potok, a young physician who was born and raised in Paris, to an American mother and a French father. She completed her medical education there before moving to the United States. She is currently training as a nephrologist at the University of California, San Diego, and was recently distinguished as an American Kidney Fund Clinical Scientist in Nephrology fellow for her work to improve diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for patients living with chronic kidney disease. Her research will focus on better understanding how two common markers used to estimate kidney function relate to aging and frailty in older patients with kidney disease.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path as a doctor or healer?

I have always wanted to become a doctor, ever since I was 7 years old. I just liked the idea of helping others, caring for people and there is no other job that I could see myself do. I think this vocation initially came to me from my uncle who is a dentist. I was amazed at how he was able to treat his patients’ pain and relieve them. I wanted to be able to heal people, too. It is only during my residency that I discovered the fascinating world of nephrology. I love that it is a specialty relying on objective data, such as laboratory tests. And I also cherish the long-term relationship that can be built between nephrologists and their patients, followed in dialysis or in clinic, which is much like that of a primary care provider. I was a family doctor before moving to the United States and I enjoy getting to know my patients well, getting to know their families and building a relationship with them.

How have your personal challenges informed your career path?

I think that choosing to move to the United States during my medical training was the most decisive turn in my career. It was not easy having to learn a different way to practice medicine, having to get comfortable in a foreign language and struggling with the very different health insurance system. But at the same time, it was amazing and very exciting. I practiced in France as locum tenens, and the clinic settings there are quite different from those in the United States. Family doctors most often work alone in the clinic, with sometimes an answering service or a secretary, but usually no other staff member, such as a nurse or a medical assistant. So, when I moved to the United States, I was surprised to see so many doctors practicing as groups in the same clinics and having the support of secretaries and nurses. I noticed this as well during my residency training here, which consisted of working as a team, with an intern, a resident, an attending physician, and sometimes a pharmacist and/or a nurse. I really enjoyed this team work and I truly believe it helps improve patient care. I think witnessing this contributed to my decision to come practice in the United States.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Doctor”?

Before I became a doctor, I wish someone had told me:

  1. You will never stop learning, and you cannot know everything. Medicine is always evolving with new diagnostic tools, new treatments, new diseases… This is what makes it so captivating. But, it can get overwhelming if you do not accept that there will always be things you do not know. I believe every doctor keeps learning every day.
  2. Doctors are humans and make mistakes. The two important reactions to have are to be honest about it and to learn from it.
  3. Losing a patient will always be hard, no matter how much you may have felt it coming or how much you tried to prepare for it. You will have to learn how to deal with it, both in order to best support the patient’s family members, but also to shield yourself from sad emotions and depression.
  4. It’s OK not to know your specialty during medical school. When I started medical school, many of my peers knew what specialty they wanted to pursue, but I did not. It took me a second residency to realize that the right specialty for me was nephrology. The work is quite different between the various medical specialties and it is very important to choose the right one, as it will be for life. It is worth taking the time to decide.
  5. Be curious and always question everything. Just because another doctor who saw the patient before you made a diagnosis, that does not necessarily mean it is the right diagnosis. The best doctors are those who doubt.

Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?

Social media appears to be a great venue to share exciting research and new articles in real time. I have just recently started going on Twitter, though I have had little experience with social media thus far. I believe that transparency is helpful to a certain extent. It may contribute to people knowing each other better and help create relationships, and connect individuals with similar interests. Scientific knowledge and research are meant to be shared and social media is a great way to spread information.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “Carpe Diem.” Seize the day and make the most of it — you never know what tomorrow may be made of. I remember an elderly patient of mine who was able to reconnect with her daughter, after being estranged for many years. I believe they had been fighting over financial issues. My patient told me all about how happy she was that she had made the first move and just wished she had done it sooner, rather than waste all this time. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer shortly after, and passed away a few months later. I am glad she was able to reconnect with her loved one and I will never forget her story.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would probably be a movement of positive attitude! I believe that trying to find the positive in every situation is always the best approach. It makes life more enjoyable and fun, it makes work more interesting, and people happier.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have recently joined Twitter, and my handle is @AlisonRenal.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!