Promoting Surgeon-Scientists in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery—From Bench to Bedside

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JAMA Otolaryngology--Head & Neck Surgery


Importance: Surgeon-scientists (defined as principal investigators [PIs] with a Doctor of Medicine [MD] degree or a combined MD and Doctor of Philosophy [PhD] degree) in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery (OHNS) are imperative for achieving clinical translation in the OHNS field.

Objective: To (1) raise awareness about the current state of surgeon-scientists in OHNS, (2) contextualize the landscape of surgeon-scientists in OHNS by comparing it to those of neurosurgery and ophthalmology, and (3) identify strategies for attracting and retaining surgeon-scientists in OHNS.

Evidence review: Research funding data from fiscal years 2015 to 2021 among surgeon-scientists in OHNS, neurosurgery, and ophthalmology were obtained from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools Expenditures and Results and the US Department of Defense (DOD) Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs awards database. The Association of American Medical Colleges provided the total number of active physicians in each specialty per year and the number and percentage of residents with an MD-PhD degree in each specialty per year. Cohen d was used to express the standardized value of the magnitude of the mean difference between compared groups.

Findings: From 2015 to 2021, on average, there were 9566 active physicians in OHNS, 5559.8 in neurosurgery, and 18908.8 in ophthalmology. In OHNS, a greater number of NIH K (research career development) grants were held by surgeon-scientists than by PIs with a PhD degree (21.4 vs 5.1; mean difference, 16.3; 95% CI, 14.3-18.3; Cohen d = 9.6), whereas most NIH R (research) and U (cooperative agreement) grants (144.1 vs 81.6; mean difference, 62.6; 95% CI, 46.3-78.9; Cohen d = 4.5) and DOD grants (9.9 vs 4.1; mean difference, 5.7; 95% CI, 1.0-10.4; Cohen d = 1.4) were held by PIs with a PhD degree. In a comparison of OHNS to neurosurgery and ophthalmology, after the number of R and U grants was scaled by the number of physicians in each field, neurosurgery had a much greater number of grants per surgeon than OHNS (0.02 vs 0.01; mean difference, 0.01; 95% CI, 0.01-0.02; Cohen d = 4.2). Additionally, neurosurgeons received a much larger R and U grant amount per physician than otolaryngologists ($10 630.20 vs $4511.80; mean difference, $6118.40; 95% CI, $2625.90-$9610.80; Cohen d = 2.0). For the R and U grant metrics, there were no meaningful differences between OHNS and ophthalmology.

Conclusions and relevance: Results of this database study showed that from 2015 to 2021, the number of governmental grants held by surgeon-scientists in OHNS increased, but there is room for improvement given the metrics of neurosurgeons, a population smaller than otolaryngologists. Possible strategies include intramural research grants, surgeon-scientist training programs, and partnerships between specialty societies and NIH administering institutes and centers.



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