Physician Spotlight: Dr. Kevin Ku, DO, Teaching Hospitalist and Attending

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Name:  Kevin Ku, MD

Hometown: Fremont, CA

College: UC Davis

Medical School: Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine

Specialty: Internal Medicine, Hospitalist

Residency Training Program: Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Current job: Teaching hospitalist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

 

What was your main motivation in becoming a doctor? When did you decide on this path?

My main motivation to become a doctor started when I was young after meeting with my pediatrician. I would see how he interacted with me and my parents and I felt that I would want a job just like him. He would be the healer, mentor, and supporter anytime and for anything. That was the motivation I felt and the physician that I wanted to be. Because no one else in my family was a physician, I actually didn’t realize there were so many other kinds of physicians (even those that don’t deal with patients at all) at the time. I’ll explain later why that is important. This path was not the only choice that I had and I even tried doing other things outside of medicine including double majoring and holding a job outside of medicine for the year after college. However, the calling of medicine and my memories of the interactions I had with my pediatrician always came back to me and finally I pulled the trigger on attempting medical school.

What are the main differences between allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO) medical schools? How has that shaped or influenced your career in medicine?

First I want to mention that there is no difference in pre-requisites in either MD or DO schools. You have to complete the same pre-med set of courses and take your MCAT prior to applying to either field. The main difference between MD and DO schools is their training. MD and DO’s train very similarly, requiring a lot of similar pre-clinical courses and clinical rotations prior to graduation. DO’s are required to take osteopathic manipulative training (OMT) (and many hours of it) to increase our tactility for physical exams as well as learn of an alternative way to diagnose and treat patients. This is usually very useful, especially in the realm of sports medicine for sports injury. I can go into a lot of detail about this but overall I view OMT as a special subset that you can later specialize in if that is what you want to focus on to help treat your patients. Kind of like picking Internal Medicine versus Surgery verses Dermatology, you learn about it during medical school but you can choose to focus on it as a profession if that is what you want.

Being an osteopathic doctor and having trained in its program have definitely allowed me to be more open to alternative medicine for certain medical problems, especially those related to injuries from sport nature or chronic pain. There is a movement away from opioid medications and this knowledge of OMT allows me to refer patients to OMT specialists or other alternative medicine specialists, if I feel like their chronic pain can be treated in other ways.

Working hard or hardly working, Dr. Ku?

Working hard or hardly working, Dr. Ku?

How did you decide on your particular specialty?
Prior to medical school, I really had no idea about all of the other different medical professions there were and some you don’t even have to talk with patients. Despite my initial motivation from my pediatrician (which was a career I was initially going to go into) I realized that I was not as good as my pediatrician in dealing with babies but also their parents. I remember distinctively trying to look into an infant’s ear and mouth and remember I couldn’t see anything because he or she was crying or squirming around. At that point I was thinking how do I treat this baby if I can’t even diagnose what is going on.

I could go on and on about each specialty but I asked myself 4th year of medical school what was important to me and why did I go into medical school in the first place. People that know me know that I like to talk and I am pretty social; therefore, patient care and interactions with patients are what I really enjoyed. Inpatient medicine was also something that I liked because of the complexity of the patients when they arrive and some border lining ICU care was what kept me from being bored. That was the reason I chose internal medicine and specifically being a hospitalist. I like the patient care and interactions, as well as the acuity of the patients, who are usually pretty sick. I like how fast things get done in the hospital and I like being the leader not only for patient care but with all medical staff (nurses, case managers, social workers, clerks, etc). I like stopping the subspecialists in the hallway and picking their brain on a case. That is what excited me about inpatient medicine and why I chose this path.

kku travel

Did you take any time off? If so, what did you do?
I took one year off after college to work in San Francisco as a Project Manager in Business Development for the Japanese External Trade Organization. I got to interact with CEOs, directors, and chiefs of different companies.
What activities did you do in college and medical school?
I did a lot of volunteer activities, especially related to medicine. Prior to medical school I went on a medical mission in Mexico for 2 weeks to provide for the underserved population there. It helps to see how the poor don’t get any help until the last minute. It really makes you more humble about your own experiences and opportunities that you have back at home. During medical school I was the President of our school and also founded and ran interest groups. I was also involved in other societies as well. In addition to that I performed research in hepatitis B at Stanford.
What is the best advice you can give to a college premed student? What about to a medical student?
The best advice I can give a college pre-med student is to first make sure being in medicine is what you want. Of all the professions that you can choose, becoming a doctor is one of the most time consuming. To be a doctor, you usually need 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and at minimum 3 years of residency. That’s 7 years of your life, post college, before you can become a full-fledged doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions to your mentors, physicians, and anyone in your field of interest before making the official decision. Try out other opportunities that may arise and see if you’re satisfied with that. You may find out that its not worth it for you. But if you do decide to do medicine, I can tell you that if you’re passionate about it, this is one of the most rewarding professions you can have.

My advice for a medical student is that your first two years, you should put most of your focus on your tests and building up your knowledge in medicine. This will set a foundation that you can later add on. The other time you have you should do some activities that will help differentiate you from your peers. Whether that be volunteer work, becoming a leader in a society, or research, choose something that will set you apart. During your last 2 years of medical school you should continue with your outside activities as well as really be engaged in your rotations to help you find out what kind of medicine you want to practice. This is your chance to explore and I know other people in other professions who would die to get the chance we get to explore the different options of medicine before deciding (ask your lawyer friends). Lastly, make an impression on your attendings so that they can write you a strong letter.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your path to medicine?

I don’t think there is much I would have done differently, I think the only thing would be that I wish I were more involved in research. I discovered the importance of research later on during residency and regret I didn’t have more interest earlier on. I am learning more and more about reading research papers but I wish I had more of a foundation during medical school to build on.

With housemates and colleagues traveling the world

With housemates and colleagues traveling the world

How do you motivate yourself in this sometimes difficult field and prevent burnout?

I am lucky enough to be able to work with residents and interns in my field and that keeps me going. But even that can’t prevent burnout sometimes. For me I take vacations and travel and do things outside of medicine so that when I return I feel that I have a new perspective. I try to read one article once a week so that I am up to date with my clinical skills. If I am ever really bummed I take a look in the mirror and think, how many people would give to be where I am today or how many of my patients are dealing with a terminal illness, and that usually kicks me out of it. Lastly, have someone you can vent to, don’t build up everything inside, because that will just make you mad. In addition, don’t be mad at the system: try to fix it or accept it.

LIFE AS AN ATTENDING

What is life as an attending like? What are some unexpected pros and also cons? 

Life as an attending is more amazing than I had expected. Although I think there is an obvious caveat here which is, if you don’t like what you are currently doing, it doesn’t change just because you’re making more money. In fact, if you go to a private group, you probably will be the only person there to make the final call and can’t rely on other people to help you out. The saying about doing what you love is still true and I hope most of you are in the field that you truly enjoy. I have heard of many people switching careers, doing fellowships, or doing other things with their degree that isn’t patient related. It’s not impossible to switch careers, but obviously the earlier the better. Another unexpected pro is that if you’re going into primary care/inpatient medicine, there is a HUGE need for you, and there are so many job choices (sometimes with a signing bonus). If there aren’t any permanent ones in the area of your choosing there are locum options which later allow you to switch to a long-term position.

Some unexpected pros (also partly con) are benefits that your job will give you outside of your salary. These include an upgraded CME/Educational fund, partnership options, pensions, etc. Some unexpected cons are that it makes choosing a job difficult because it’s sometimes difficult to weigh all the benefits equally when choosing. Each job has its own unique pros and cons. I know a few people who are having difficulty in choosing their jobs because they don’t know which benefit is better.
What is your work schedule like as an attending hospitalist?
As asteaching hospitalist, our schedule is similar to the residents in that we do 2,3, or 4 weeks at a time of wards (inpatient medicine). Again, each job is different, but in general as a teaching hospitalist you would be expected to do at least 2 weeks at a time as compared to a private hospitalist where even after working 5 days you’ll want to kill someone. Time you’re not on wards you are off when you’re a private attending. As a teaching attending we usually use that time to prepare for teaching and sometimes do lectures for the residents/medical students.
What is it like being on “the other side,” now working with and mentoring residents and medical students?
So far I feel like its almost the same because I’ve always mentored my interns or medical students. Now I mentor residents as well. If you like working with residents and medical students, then a teaching position allows you to continue that. You can be a mentor as a private attending too; however I think your options are less given that you’re not surrounded by bright young naive minds.

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