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20 Questions: John T. Sinnott, MD, FACP, Infectious Disease

John T. Sinnott, MD, FACP is the Director of the Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Recently, he sat down with SDN to give us a glimpse into his career as an Infectious Disease specialist.

Describe a typical day at work.

I don’t think there is a typical day at work for me. It seems that each day is full of something new and exciting and different. One day I may be teaching concepts of diagnosing illnesses to medical students, the next day working on a grant and the day after that analyzing an epidemiologic study. To me the best part of my job is that there are no typical days. 

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Why did you select academics over private practice?
Selecting academics was a relatively easy choice over private practice. While private practice allows autonomy, it also entails the responsibility of business. I prefer the academic pursuits of seeking new knowledge, teaching and academic patient care. Academics affords me the freedom to work at my own pace, study areas important to me and practice in areas that I am truly knowledgeable about.

What mix of clinical/research/teaching work do you do? How much power do you have to change that mix?
As a professor, I have a wide range of freedom in choosing my mix of activities during the day. There are some administrative responsibilities where organizational talents are required. But I can mix my ratio of clinical, research and teaching work in a manner that gives me the most professional satisfaction. It seems that some years I am more oriented towards clinical work, others to teaching, and yet others to research. There are advantages and disadvantages to academic medicine. To me the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

What are the advantages/disadvantages to academic medicine?
Advantages of academic medicine:
1. Atmosphere of lifelong learning.
2. Excitement and energy of the students.
3. Giving back to medicine through mentoring.
4. Having time to thoroughly understand a disease.
5. Being surrounded by smart people. Never being the smartest person in the room.
6. Dealing routinely with thought leaders.
7. Balancing a career and research and writing.
8. The thrill of “making a difference”.
Disadvantages:
None that I know of.

If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a doctor? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead)?
Being a physician is a dream come true. I simply can’t imagine pursuing a profession that did not care for and was not about people.

Why did you choose your specialty?
Infectious disease has a broad horizon and I like to take a long-term wide angle view on my profession. Furthermore, I had polio as a child and was always curious: “why me?” and “what happened?”

Did you plan to enter your current specialty prior to med school?
Yes. As a college student, microbiology fascinated me. I was lucky to do research with Dr. Charles Craig before starting medical school which helped solidify my goals.

Now that you’re in your specialty, do you find that it met your expectations?
Infectious disease and international medicine have far exceeded my expectations. Science, medical practice, exotic illness, diverse patients and uniquely curable patients make it quite fulfilling.

Are you satisfied with your income?
Of course I am satisfied with my income. Actually, I would probably do this job for free…but don’t tell my boss.

What do you like most and least about your specialty?
Infectious disease is constantly evolving as a specialty. New knowledge is discovered every day and it’s wonderful to have the skills to apply these spectacular advances. The paperwork is the least tasteful part of my profession, but it is hardly unique to medicine.

If you took out educational loans, is paying them back a financial strain?
I was fortunate enough to have financial support to attend medical school. This was supplemented with loans. Today, however, the financial climate is different. Unfortunately, perhaps tragically, education is increasingly expensive. It is not fair that our future students will face a burden of debt. It is also not in the best interests of our society.

On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I work about 60 or more hours per week, if you want to call it work. Much of what I do is fascinating and gives a deep sense of fulfillment and professional satisfaction. I sleep about six hours a night but usually awake eager to go to the hospital or school. I spend two to three weeks fishing a year. Additional time is spent in healthcare in an international setting. I look at it as fun. I could take more time, but I don’t desire to.

Do you have a family and do you have enough time to spend with them?
I enjoy family life but it is, by my choice, secondary to work.

In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?

10 years ago I would have told a younger John Sinnott to be less judgmental, more accepting and to pursue an agenda for personal growth with a good mentor.

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were a premed? (What mistakes of experiences have you encountered that you wished you had known about ahead of time so you could have avoided them?)
My “pre-med” years were fortunately spent playing tennis, working in a boat yard and exploring life. My grades would not be acceptable to medical schools in this day and age. Fortunately, people tell me that standardized exams are my strong point so the MCAT helped. So did some admission committees less focused on grades. A mistake that current pre-med students seem to make is a bad blend of too many “difficult” courses at the same time and a lack of liberal arts experience.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in healthcare today?
The main problem with medicine today is the paradigm of the iron triangle and the confusion of success with money. The iron triangle balances success, cost and quality. Essentially, you get only two of the three. It would not be incorrect to say we need a healthcare revolution. Secondly, some physicians confuse financial and professional success. Hopefully, our new generation of doctors will define success as being a great doctor in the framework of being a great human being. That the better “angels” of their nature will prevail over natural desires.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem within your own specialty?
Perhaps the greatest problem facing infectious disease is the consequence of emerging pathogens with a medical community that sometimes suffers from a failure of imagination.

What impact do mid-level providers have on your day-to-day practice?
Mid-level providers are an invaluable resource. They allow more time for complex issues and often bring a different perspective to our view through a sometimes mirrored prism.

Where do you see your specialty in 10 years?
There will be tremendous growth in the study of infectious disease and international medicine over the next decade. Overpopulation, globalization, new disease, antibiotic resistance and advances in medical science will change our calling completely.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any? Any international work?
Volunteerism is a key to professional satisfaction as well as to projecting a positive image of the profession. Volunteering can range from free clinic work to community board service to international efforts.

What’s your favorite TV show?
TV has, for me, some appeal in the history and learning channels.

36 thoughts on “20 Questions: John T. Sinnott, MD, FACP, Infectious Disease”

  1. I have a lot of respect for Infectious Disease physicians. Unfortunately, ID is one of the lowest paying specialties, and what Dr. Sinnott conveniently did not mention is that physicians in an academic setting generally earn 30%-50% less than their private counterparts. I work in an academic setting under an ID fellow, who graduated from a private university, and a decade after graduation he has barely managed to pay only the interest on his loans (Tuition back then, according to him, was also about half of where it’s at now). Like I said, I really respect those in ID- They are some of the smartest and hardest workin folks in medicine- But with tuitions skyrocketing and salaries declining, we’re reaching a point where going into the specialty no longer makes financial sense.

  2. This article comes across as an advertisement, rather than being informative. There are clearly disadvantages to everything, and it would have been helpful and more informative if the disadvantages to academic medicine were listed.

  3. Thank you for this article! Infectious Disease is definitely my top specialty choice at this point despite the low salary. It is great to hear from someone who so obviously enjoys his job and is truly passionate about medicine.

  4. “I enjoy family life but it is, by my choice, secondary to work.”
    ahh priceless…if only my dad had put me second to his career…

  5. “I enjoy family life but it is, by my choice, secondary to work.”
    Wow. That’s awful. Makes me not want that job. I love it when I ignore my family and spend 60 hours a week at work.
    I bet his wife and kids are thrilled.

  6. Many may not want to hear it but sometimes we must sacrifice personal success for professional success. Where would our society be but for individuals who realize this sacrifice and even openly acknowledge it.
    Don’t judge a man’s relationship with his family without knowing the details. Yes, he works 60+ hours a week so do most physicians in all fields. Maybe when he is at work, he puts all his heart and soul into the job and when at home, does the same.
    Dr. Sinnott is a self-aware and honest physician. He should be admired and I think he is open enough to hope that the next generation of physicians might be able to change the world of medicine while balancing the commitments of family.

  7. As far as ID not making financial sense as stated above, no one should be going into medicine to make a lot of money. If this is your motivation and reason for tearing down what a learned professor has to say, find another profession (maybe law, business, accounting). Medicine is a calling, an art- not a bottomline. If you are only concerned about $, you will be miserable in life and your career. Money does not buy happiness and 60+ hours a week doing something you hate regardless of the pay will make you want to poke your eyes out with a hot poker. I know- I have been there.

  8. Believe me, i agree with not going into a field strictly for the money but you NEED to at least consider your future salary and lifestyle. That will determine where your family lives, if you can pay for your childs college, how many of your kids sporting events you attend. I enjoyed most of the patient care fields during med school but could not fathom working 60-80 hours/week for 130K…instead i chose something that allows me to be home a lot, to swim with my kids in the evening, eat dinner with my wife on friday night, ski with my family in colorado…the stuff that really matters in life and memories i’ll carry forever. My field involves a dark room, GREAT salary, and 12 weeks vacation 😉

  9. medstud: Are you a first year? Salary is in many ways a tangible representation of respect. When people do ID fellowships to get a LOWER salary than if they just did general IM, it says “we don’t think you’re very valuable”. And guess what – they don’t.
    I’m sure you’ll be ecstatic to discover that the low-end ID job offers at academic institutions are now comparable to upper end physician assistant salaries. Soon perhaps we can make less than our PAs! Then and only then will we be free of this dreadful interest in money. I can’t wait for that happy day.

  10. Dr. Sinnott’s openness, honesty, commitment, quest for knowledge, and definition of success are what make him not only an exceptional physician and professor but, more importantly, an exceptional human being. He sets the standards for what all physicians should aspire to be.

  11. “He sets the standards for what all physicians should aspire to be.”
    …but i’m more than a “physician”..i’m a father, a husband, a runner, a movie lover, a reader, a well rounded person etc. Its a job, a very cool job, but a still a job. Choose wisely

  12. No- not a first year and have a substantial amount of experience in another professional field where I made $$$$. Money does not buy happiness and I would rather do what I love and make less than do a job like radiology where I would be paid well but bored to tears.

  13. Medstud- There’s a fundamental difference between doing what you love for less and doing what you love for nothing (or even losing money for doign what you love). As tuitions increase, and compensation declines, we reach a specific point where the investment of time and money is no longer profitable financially or emotionally- That point depends of course on how emotionally invested you are in that career path. Doing what you love is great, but be careful of the sensationalist attitude of reducing jobs either “boring you to tears” or being your dream come true. Like others have said- being a physicians is nothing more than a really, really cool job. It’s one thing to sacrifice your 20’s to sitting in a library all day and racking up an astronomical debt. Not being able to pay that debt off in a reasonable time, not enjoying your life outside of work, or not being able to finance your kids’ education or your retirement, however, is a completely different story.

  14. A great man once said “no worldly success can compensate for failure in the home”. I respect this physician’s dedication to his work, but I have to disagree with his stance on the priority he gives to his family. Forgive me for being blunt, but how can you say you care for people when you don’t put the most important people in your life at the top? Dr. Sinnott may be involved in an amazing cause (I know because I work for an internist that specializes in infectious diseases), but when all is said and done, he may realize that he gave up the essential things for the good things.
    I did appreciate his other comments and they were very insightful in describing the life of an academic physician.

  15. Thank you. This was really interesting. He really loves his work so much and it is inspiring that he does! But, I still think that his top priority should be his family. Anyway, that’s his opinion about it. I’m sure he’s a great doctor. 🙂

  16. What simplistic views I’m reading! Individuals are free to choose their own priorities in life. Some prefer family life, some prefer careers, some prefer traveling, some prefer stamp collecting, …, etc. The guy is most passionate about his work. Those who choose their careers over raising a family aren’t automatic failures! Sheesh. He doesn’t even indicate that he has children, so maybe we can avoid throwing accusations of neglect.
    I admire anyone who places a priority on doing what they love and doing it well, whatever that may be. Nice job!

  17. I agree with you that we cannot judge Dr. Sinnott’s family life because we don’t know anything about it. However, my point was that the family is the fundamental unit of society. Well-traveled travelers and successful stamp collectors are nice to have too, but they are not the fundamental unit of society. In other words, there is no other position (i.e. government officials, teachers, counselors, etc.) that can supplement or replace the roles of effective husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. I think this is especially important to for those in the busy medical field to remember.

  18. I believe Dr.Sinnot is really being honest. I’ve talked to physicians that listed their family life as a priority but in reality only pay lip service to this ideal.
    When you’re spending most of your waking hours at work and missing certain family events, no matter how you choose to describe it, family is secondary.
    What sums it up best(as described by another ID doc) is that many times as a physician, wherever you are-at work or at home-you will have this nagging feeling that you probably should be somewhere else.

  19. I was just wondering if Dr. Sinnott is any relation to the late John Sinnott, MD. He was a fantastic New Jersey Shore surgeon and a great friend of my physician-dad, Charles W. Kelly, MD. The two doctors had such a high respect for each other … and Dr. Sinnott didn’t like that many people, dad said.
    Even if he’s not a relation, I’m still very impressed with his story. Good luck to him and great work Student Doctor Network. Keep it up!
    Greg Kelly
    Editor
    Physicians’ Financial News
    http://www.pfnlive.com

  20. RJ–people contribute to the “fabric of society” in different ways. I’m discomforted by your narrow view of ‘family.’ By your logic, priests and nuns would be unweaving the fabric that binds us together.
    People who are passionate about their work are just as important to society as those who prioritize family life. Unless you live in a fantasy world, where goods and services provide themselves.

  21. Let me explain better. Having a successful career is essential to putting family first because it fulfills your responsibility to support your family. I agree that being passionate about your work is very important but it is still not the end result. The greatest good that can be done for society is for someone to work hard in their careers and then invest what they earn in our country’s most important and appreciable asset: Children.
    Obviously someone invested in you. I wouldn’t call it “narrow minded” to suggest that you do the same for someone else.
    Also, nuns and priests are exempt from this discussion because they do not have children that they may be neglecting. They, like many others, can be amazing contributors to the “fabric” of society.

  22. “What simplistic views I’m reading! Individuals are free to choose their own priorities in life.”
    I couldn’t agree more. Who are we to judge? I have heard it this way, medicine is a jealous mistress. True happiness comes from self respect, and that is happiness he brings home every day to his family, whatever that looks like.

  23. This is a dangerously unbalanced view of ID. Dr. Sinnott’s comments are predictable, given his employment situation (director, academic, infectious disease). Would you expect him to reply differently? What studentdoctor should do is contrast his views with those of an ID doc in private practice who has little interest in academic medicine and for whom family life (and leisure) are priorities. That should balance things out somewhat.

  24. to be honest it’s where you draw the line – family and caree 50:50? Maybe career is more important? 70:30? Maybe family is more important – 30:70

  25. I have known Dr. John Sinnott for over twenty years. I have worked with him closely. He truly is a brilliant, kind and caring physician.

  26. Like the man said, ID’s rise is coming. With all the new epidemics and exotice diseases–there will be a time that ID will be the specialty in the highest demand. Just wait and see..

  27. RJ – you’re a righteous moron and the last doctor on the planet I would want at my bedside if I was seriously ill. Nice that your idea of happiness is a Norman Rockwell painting, but please spare others of your societal lectures. Let me guess…you worship the one true God and people of all other faiths will burn in hell for eternity? People with your attitude damage society and shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because their children will inherent the same ignorant closed mindedness of their holier than thou parents and continue to damage it.
    The bottom line is that Dr. Sinnott is exactly the type of physician that patients fight to have treat them. He’s not going to be running off to pick up the kids from soccer practice because saving lives is the most important thing to him.

  28. You’re right Ryan. RJ is a grade A asshole and probably masturbates to pictures of Sarah Palin in a bathing suit.

  29. Quote from RJ, “Excuse me ma’am, I suspect you will live through the night, but I can’t be sure because I promised my wife I’d be home to eat her world famous meatloaf by 6:00”
    What a douchebag.

  30. It is because of Dr. Sinnott that many physicians in training turn out to be the excellent medical caretakers they are. His zeal for teaching, his depth of heart, and his passion for learning make him a role model.

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