Dr. Barbara Mathes, American Academy of Dermatology

Thasin Jaigirdar
Oct 31, 2014

Dr. Barbara Mathes is an American Dermatologist who serves as the Assistant Secretary Treasurer at the American Academy of Dermatology. She has also done work for various Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies throughout her career as well. She was also at one point a Nurse as well.

How did you decide on a career in medicine?

I began my professional career as a nurse – in those days few women were physicians and as odd as this seems now, the idea of being a doctor hadn’t ever occurred to me! Only once I had started working, I discovered medicine and was attracted to the challenges of diagnosing and managing disease – things that weren’t a part of nursing at the time. Encouraged by the med students and residents with whom I worked, I decided to go try med school.

What made you pick dermatology as your specialty?

Many things: I’m a visual person and learner, and have always been a curious observer.  As a student, I enjoyed the intellectual aspects of medicine- finding out what people had, what caused the problem, generating a differential, but I also enjoyed doing procedures; I wanted to care for children and adults, men and women, and I enjoyed outpatient medicine at a time when almost all clinical training was done in hospitals. With a dermatology rotation, I discovered my passion – dermatology! It meshed well with my interests, I could see the young, old and in between, it included medicine, surgery, procedures, and pathology. An added bonus was that I, and patients, could see results. Often it was immediate gratification! It also made me acutely aware of the significant impact the visibility of even minor skin conditions had on people, and how important then it was to diagnose correctly, listen empathetically, and offer appropriate interventions to not only treat disease, but to allow the patient to be “normal.”  Good dermatologic care, making the right diagnosis and treating properly made a real difference in patients’ lives.

What changes do you believe would improve the quality of medical education?

1)      A greater focus on communication and the importance of interactions with patients. We learn so much by looking at, listening to, and touching people.

2)      Greater opportunities and more time to observe and work with master physician educators– those superb clinicians who have tremendous medical and scientific knowledge, but also have excellent interpersonal skills and empathy.

3)      Utilization of technology to simulate and learn, to reinforce knowledge and allow us to make intellectual connections to advance knowledge and science.

4)      Utilization of technology to enhance peer interactions and education to improve and keep current, to identify learning and knowledge gaps, and to cull big data to help with a variety of health issues.

5)      Advancements in learning science to improve all aspects of medicine – how we learn, how we integrate information, how to avoid bias and pitfalls, how to better understand and care for patients.

Can you discuss your interest in the connection between art and medicine?

Art is a marvelous tool for teaching observation and empathy. Despite the introduction of many new technologies for diagnosing patients, good observational skills tell us much about patients. One can observe clinical findings that lead to diagnoses; they can also tell us how patients “feel,” how their disease affects them, how they perceive their condition as well as their care.  Seeing and listening tell us much more than adjectives from an EHR dropdown box. The ability to see and sense the patient and their needs is critical to healing relationships. Art also can (and has) been used to elicit information from patients: some things that cannot be verbally articulated can be “said” using art.  Whether creating or viewing art, utilizing art can help us better understand our patients, disease, the human condition, and – importantly – ourselves.

As Assistant Secretary Treasurer to the American Academy of Dermatology, how do you foresee the field of dermatology changing in the next few years?

I see dermatology playing a significant leadership role in advancing technologies such as telemedicine to provide dermatologic expertise to people, in areas of the country, and in circumstances (e.g. prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, etc) where dermatologists are now in short supply. Telemedicine has the potential to improved dermatologic care for patients whether we see them in our offices or virtually. Coupling telemedicine with improved education for non-derm physicians, other health care providers, and patients will allow dermatologists to efficiently allocate their time, and enhance dermatologic health without compromising patient care or outsourcing it to those without expertise in the field.

As dermatology accumulates and analyzes data from large numbers of patients and the 3000 diseases that we diagnose and treat, we will become less anecdotal and more evidence based. This should lead to better outcomes and a greater understanding within the house of medicine of the significance of dermatologic disease and care to overall health.

Why did you decide to switch from a career in nursing to a career in medicine? 

When I went into nursing over 35 years ago, nursing was far more limited. Our role – as crazy as this sounds today – was to be “the doctor’s handmaiden.” Nurses did a wonderful job and a great service caring for patients at the bedside, primarily in hospitals; the field was less challenging then, nurses were were less educated and had fewer career opportunities. Things have changed a lot since then.  I am grateful though for what nursing taught me about the importance of observating and listening, and the healing power of touch and presence.