Career Journeys: Dr. Gregg Franklin, Radiation Oncologist

Jul 27, 2015

Gregg E. Franklin, MD, PhD, is the Clinical Director of Radiation Oncology at the New Mexico Cancer Center, a position he has held since 2011. He began working as a physician partner in this multispecialty practice in 2005, after completing his residency at the Mallinkrodt Institute of Radiation/Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

How did you initially choose radiation oncology as your specialty? Were there any unexpected detours along the way?

GF: The detour was actually with my first career as a condensed matter physicist! After getting my PhD from the University of Illinois and completing a postdoctoral position with Harvard University, I left my staff scientist position with Sandia National Labs to go to medical school to become a radiation oncologist. I found out about radiation oncology during graduate school from personal experiences and friends/acquaintances who were either radiation oncologists or treated with radiation. For me, it was a perfect mix of high-tech, patient care, and making an immediate difference in people’s lives.

Why did you choose a private practice setting instead of an academic setting? Are there any particular differences for a radiation oncologist?

GF: While in residency, I won a Radiological Society of North America/ Siemen’s grant and focused on clinical radiation oncology research for about a year. I realized that I was not nearly as interested in oncology research as I had been in basic physics research. Research can be very rewarding and intellectually stimulating, but it can also be very lonely and lead to “minimally beneficial” results after years of hard work. I also realized that what was driving me on a day-to-day basis was developing honest and meaningful connections with my patients and helping them, using the tools of radiation oncology, to improve their lives. A private practice setting allows me to see a broad spectrum of diseases, and not narrowly focus on one or a few disease sites, and offers the constant challenge of always learning something new. It also allows me to mainly focus on what I love most about oncology, the patient, and without the pressure to publish papers or search for funding (as was the case in basic science research).

Is there a personal experience that shaped your professional journey and led you to where you are today?

GF: I have very rarely mentioned this to patients or colleagues (and some may be surprised to learn) that while just starting out in physics graduate school I was treated for Hodgkin lymphoma with radiation therapy alone. This experience ultimately led me to radiation oncology as a profession. While I wouldn’t wish that firsthand knowledge on anyone, I can say that event brought me to a profession that I love working at and, maybe in some subtle ways, makes me a better physician for my patients.

What is a memory or experience from residency that stands out for you?

GF: During residency we rotated through various disease sites, and my first and last rotations were with pediatric oncology. I was really excited and enjoyed dealing with children and their families when I first arrived as a resident. Mid-residency I became a father of two boys. During my final rotation, I felt devastated dealing with these children and their poor families. Besides the obvious, my experience again brought home the realization about how important personal experience, listening, and empathizing with patients are to becoming a caring physician.

Describe your typical work day.

GF: My typical work day involves coming into either our main clinic in Albuquerque or flying/driving to one of our outlying clinics and seeing patients from 8 AM to 5 PM. During the day I see on-treatment patients, follow up with patients who have finished treatment (some coming in years after successfully completing therapy), or new consultations. During the day, I am also involved with simulating new patients, contouring new treatment plans, or performing minor “surgical” procedures (brachytherapy). Occasionally, I am seeing patients in the hospital or dealing with on-call issues. During the week, I am involved with different tumor boards, as well as administrative issues with the practice and my department.

What aspect of your job is your favorite? What part is the most challenging?

GF: That’s pretty easy. The most enjoyable part of my job is interacting with my patients and their families and coming up with a management plan for them. The most frustrating is all the paperwork, as well as the local politics.

Why would you recommend this career to someone starting out in oncology?

GF: This is a fantastic field of oncology that allows the physician to use high-tech toys, have frequent patient contact, and be an integral part of an interdisciplinary team. There are also minor procedures for those who like to play at being a mini-surgeon. The field is very data- and trial-driven and new developments are occurring at a breakneck pace. It also doesn’t hurt that call is typically very manageable and there is a good lifestyle in terms of time and money.

What kind of person thrives in this career and in the interdisciplinary team dynamic?

GF: I am constantly walking down the hall to discuss a case with my medical oncology or radiology colleagues, or on the phone or meeting in person at tumor boards with my surgical (and other) colleagues. The team dynamic is strong and part of it is due to the relatively small Albuquerque community of doctors, but the other part is having equally committed physicians who want to put the patients first. These days, most oncologists are overwhelmed with the amount of information we have to continually learn. A physician who is confident in their own abilities but who can also accept criticism and wants to learn about other perspectives on difficult cases will thrive in this role. It is my opinion that an interdisciplinary team not only gives patients the best outcomes but also allows physicians to learn a lot from each other. We are more than a set of guidelines when it comes to patient care.

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