Welcome to Healthcare 5.0: A Conversation with David M. Carlisle, MD, PhD

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

At this year’s UC Davis Pre-Health Conference, the concept of innovation was on everybody’s minds and lips. There’s no denying that this is an exciting time to be in the medical field; between new technologies, healthcare reforms, and an increasingly global society, things are changing at a rapid pace.
With all this newness and excitement, it’s easy to forget the reason so many of us go into medicine: to help others. And while the topic of his conference keynote was “Healthcare 5.0”, when SDN sat down with David M. Carlisle, MD, PhD, the focus was on caregiving in the most traditional sense.
“It’s always amazing to me when I talk to healthcare people, whether they are Beverly Hills plastic surgeons or somebody from Doctors without Borders, the common denominator is that they all go into healthcare to help people,” Carlisle, the President and CEO of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, told us. “It’s an honor and privilege to be a doctor, to be able to do that.”
Wanting to help and heal others is indeed what inspired Carlisle to pursue medicine, although his calling came to him a bit later in life. “I was a late bloomer,” he laughs, reflecting on his college experience at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that he had what he dubs his “epiphany”. “I was a science-intensive person – a nerd, a geek – headed towards a PhD in chemistry or pharmacology. Then, somebody sat me down and said, ‘Dave, given what you say your interests are, you should really go into medicine instead of going on and getting your PhD’. And I said, ‘Right on… Let’s do it. I decided to apply to medical school and haven’t looked back since.”
After earning his M.D. from Brown University, Carlisle did a two-year stint in the National Health Service Corps, practicing at the Watts Health Center in South Central Los Angeles. This changed his course once again. “Before going to the Watts Health Center, I was pretty much a hospitalist. I had done my residency at the county hospital, and learned how to do every hospital based procedure very well, but did not know how to do outpatient procedures very well. But when I went to the Watts Health Center it totally changed my orientation,” he explains. “I started taking public health classes at UCLA, which changed my whole world view of medicine… suddenly I started thinking about population health, taking care of thousands of people at a time instead of a single patient at the time.”
Carlisle spent a number of years doing health services research at UCLA, eventually earning his PhD in Public Health. Between 2000-2011, he served as Director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD) within the California Health and Human Services Agency, and then took on his current role as President and Chief Executive Officer of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine (CDU) and Science. CDU, which is located in the Watts-Willowbrook area of Los Angeles County, is what Carlisle calls a “health professions school”, with programs in medicine, nursing, and health science. When asked why his title was “CEO” rather than “dean”, he explained that “In reality, all universities are business operations. Our university is a non-profit, a 501c-3, but especially for private universities that are not publicly subsidized, we have to make sure that we mind the books, and run the institution in the black. So in a sense, it is a corporation, but our corporate mission is education.”
Being the head of a medical school, Carlisle is well aware of how competitive med school admissions can be. “The ultimate important step in applying to med school is asking yourself, how can you separate yourself from the pack? That really is the defining moment in the application process. Because you’ve gotten this far – now, what’s going to make you different from the other 100, 200, 1000 people that they are going to interview? So whatever it is – whether you’re an athlete, an artist, someone who has done international service, or whether you’ve been a hotshot biomedical researcher, you have to do something to make yourself unique. And everyone has a unique quality; you may have to sit down and talk to somebody to find out what that quality is, but everyone has one. It’s what makes them special.”
One of the things that makes Carlisle unique is his dual degree (an MD/PhD). He urges students considering the dual degree path to take things one step at a time. “Establish your foundation in clinical medicine and at the same time, cultivate your other interests. It’s important to get that MD first, and then figure out what you want to do,” he says. “Our leading biomedical researchers and medical scientists are people who went into research after getting their medical degrees.” Having clinical experience is also extremely important for the perspective and gravitas it gives you, no matter what area of health policy or research you ultimately decide to pursue. “I spent 11 years up in Sacramento working in the government, and whenever I was discussing some sort of policy issue, I could say, ‘I’m a doctor, and when I see patients in this situation, this is what it means to us.’ And that’s always a conversation stopper, because people realize it’s no longer hypothetical, but these are real people we’re talking about – and only doctors, nurses and other medical professionals can make these statements.”
Throughout his career, Carlisle has taken a special interest in health disparities – something he tries to impart to his students, as well. “Medical students need to know more about health disparities, because in the profession we work in, disparities are part of the deal.” When trying to explain the impact of these disparities to student doctors, he uses the example of a patient who came into his residency training hospital, who was an original member of the Drifters, a popular 1950’s doo-wop band. “Here he is at our hospital with no health insurance, he’s down and out…and this is somebody who is a major American icon,” says Carlisle. “I just think that is intolerable.”
Luckily, he’s seen a lot of progress recently on these matters. “We’re in a great position in this country, because we’re focusing more and more on healthcare and education – and those are things that basically underlie the fabric of society, and they’re really important for any civilized environment. So to the extent that we can grow those activities, we’re making this country a better place.” Now that we’re coming closer to closing the gaps and ensuring that everyone has access to care, he explains, we can move on to the next phase of medicine – what he called “Health 5.0
“Medicine has come a long way since the days of shamans and herbalists,” Carlisle says. “We are about to embark on 21st century medicine, which is the advent of what I call biotechnology medicine. Medicine has already been heavily invested in technology, but we’re starting to see a difference in that technology, because all of a sudden genomics, gene therapy, things like this are starting to make an impact, and we’re being able to cure things we couldn’t even think about curing a few years ago. Metastatic cancer, sickle cell anemia – they’re all within the realm of scientific possibility in the next few decades.”
With his impressive career, diverse experience, and admirable dedication to the health and well-being of all our citizens, Carlisle is the living embodiment of this Health 5.0 ideal. But perhaps the true secret of his success comes from his brush with failure. “Truth be told, straight into college, I flunked my first biology test,” he admits. “I had to sit myself down and say, you’ve got to change the way you’re doing things, you’ve got to recalibrate your life. I did exactly that, and by the end of the term, I had the highest grade in the class… I think everyone in healthcare faces challenges, and another commonality in healthcare people is tenacity, perseverance, not giving up even when people are telling you them they won’t be successful. They keep going because they know this their personal mission.”
David M. Carlisle, MD, PhD, is the President and CEO of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. He received his BA degree from Wesleyan University in 1976; MD degree from Brown University in 1981; Master’s degree in Public Health from UCLA in 1988 and PhD in 1992. He completed a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program fellowship at the David Geffen School of Medicine (DGSOM) in 1990, and was appointed in 2000 by Gov. Gray Davis as the Director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. He was appointed in 2000 by then Gov. Gray Davis to that high-level role in the state’s Health and Human Services agency, and has consulted for the RAND/UCLA Center for Health Policy Studies. Dr. Carlisle is a strong advocate for greater diversity within the health care industry. He gave a keynote lecture – “Health 5.0” – at the 2015 UC Davis Pre-Medical and Pre-Health Professions National Conference.