Before Howard Yeon, MD, JD became a spine surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, did you know he was a practicing attorney at a prestigious law firm working with patents? Read on to learn why he made the switch from law to orthopaedics and what he skills he’s learned in law that he applies to his patients.
I became interested in studying the law while I was a college student. I believed that knowledge of the law would enhance and broaden my understanding of any profession that I chose to pursue. The system of laws, governing the rights, responsibilities and interactions among people seemed like an intriguing and useful field of study.
Choosing between medicine and law was not a difficult decision. Though working at a top law firm and practicing patent law with a team of attorneys had fulfilling aspects including being able to review new technologies and intellectual property, I prefer a personal interaction with my patients. The ability to relieve a person’s pain or restore their function through surgery is the most fulfilling professional accomplishment I have experienced, so for me, orthopaedic surgery was the right choice.
As I grew up in a family of physicians, becoming a doctor was always seen as a worthy goal and family tradition. Both of my parents practiced medicine, and all three of my older sisters became doctors–two in cardiology and one in OB/GYN. Growing up in this environment, I had the opportunity to see—early on—many facets of the practice of medicine. My father started his career conducting medical research at Columbia University, and as I got older, he took me with him to the hospital to visit his patients. I helped my parents at their offices, answered patient phone calls at our home and went with my father on his visits to patients’ homes. Becoming a doctor was a lifelong goal for me, and I am happily carrying on a three generation tradition.
As a medical student, I was drawn to orthopaedic surgery because it offered a nice balance between aspects of medical practice. Most orthopaedic procedures including spine procedures, have reasonably simple and straightforward goals: broken bones are realigned and stabilized; pinched nerves are decompressed; and damaged cartilage is replaced. This clarity of purpose helps orthopaedists communicate well with their patients, and surgeries can be both reliable and successful. Orthopaedic surgery also is a leading field in medicine for the development of new technology. Advances in orthopaedic surgery in the last decade include new materials and metals, customized and more durable implants, stem cell and regenerative procedures and robotics. Being a part of Rothman Orthopaedics with its emphasis on developing and evaluating new technologies is a fulfilling aspect of my professional life.
One of the most difficult things I learned in law school was to get away from thinking - as physicians and scientists often do - in terms of one “right” answer and instead to understand that many different outcomes could be appropriate depending on the decision making process. Though medical education emphasizes causes of disease and their treatment, I realize as a practicing surgeon that each patient’s decisions regarding their treatment rely on personal preferences and values as well as on scientific research. I believe that my training in law has helped to broaden my understanding of all of the factors that may contribute to my patients’ decisions.
Given the chance, I think I would make many of the same choices. There wasn’t an exact moment I decided to leave law—in fact, there were great aspects of both professions including the ability to help people in difficult situations and the opportunity to work with others in a team setting. Medicine and surgery just proved to be the better fit for me because the effects of my efforts as a physician seemed more personal.
Though at times, the extra years I spent in law school and working at the law firm seemed long given my choice to practice medicine, I hope my broader understanding of the law and of medicine and their interaction serves to help my medical practice.