Department of Medicine

Nephrologist Balances Growing Career and Family

Faculty Spotlight: Wolfgang Winkelmayer

Wolfgang Winkelmayer, MD, ScD works out of a cozy office off campus. The light from a large window highlights his children’s artwork hung on the wall above his desk.
Wolfgang Winkelmayer MD, ScD Wolfgang Winkelmayer, MD, ScD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology
 In the corner, sits the espresso maker he brought over from Europe ready to brew afternoon coffee. Winkelmayer was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, and worked as a clinical nephrologist before coming to study in the United States. As Associate Professor of Medicine and Head of Clinical Research in the Division of Nephrology, he collaborates with colleagues at Stanford, and other leading institutions around the world to develop evidence based and effective care for patients with kidney disease.

He recently spoke with Rita Kennen, Department of Medicine, Public Relations Officer, about his research, the rewards of mentoring, and how to maintain work/life balance.

Q: Why led you to practice in the United States?

Wolfgang Winkelmayer: I was working at a hospital in Vienna, when due to special circumstances; I became head of the nephrology service while I was still a fellow. It was a great opportunity and challenge; however, I realized that without research my career options were limited.  I was also interested in health care management at the time and was accepted into a program at the Harvard School of Public Health. The program and the people I met at Harvard opened my eyes to the many opportunities available in the US.  I furthered my training, finished my doctoral studies in health policy at the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmaoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and was invited to stay on as faculty.

Later, when I returned to Austria to quit my job (I had been on unpaid leave) no one seemed to understand why I would leave a lifetime tenured position. Yet, for me it was easy, because I could see all the possibilities in front of me.  Several years later, I did a second nephrology fellowship at a joint program at the Brigham and Massachusetts General Hospital. As I began to treat patients again, I also considered whether to stay in Boston or explore moving somewhere out west.

Q: How did you end up at Stanford?

WW: It was World Kidney Day in March 2009 and Glenn Chertow, MD, Chief of Nephrology, a friend and colleague was giving Medicine Grand Rounds at Mass General. Over coffee, I told him I was considering a position in the Northwest and he invited me to consider Stanford instead. After visiting a few times, my wife and I agreed that it was the place for us. Stanford appealed to me because it is a boutique institution and I felt colleagues might be more open to collaboration here than in a larger institution. To some extent that is true and I hope to expand opportunities for collaboration even more.

Q: What makes comparative effectiveness research important?

WW: A major problem in nephrology is the lack of specific data to inform treatment decisions for our patients. Comparative effectiveness research works to inform clinical practice using data from typical patients in typical practice settings and applies innovative analytical methods to existing data to develop evidence about the effectiveness and safety of various interventions. Those interventions may be devices; or drugs, or care pathways.  I saw a clear opportunity to combine Medicare claims data already available to me with data from electronic health records of large dialysis providers. Studies using such a unique database would be particularly suitable to generate new evidence and to inform our clinical practice. I am currently leveraging these data as I am also in the process of building a young research group that will focus on comparative effectiveness research.

Q: Who has inspired you along the way?

WW: It is not just one person, but an important trait in many successful people. A number of colleagues who I respect as leaders in the field live a normal life. There is adequate work/life balance. They know when to say no and when their work day starts and ends. This inspires me and is something I emphasize to every applicant.  Stanford has one of the top 3 clinical research programs in nephrology and also provides the best work/life balance. I would rather see fellows go for a run at 6 pm than to work until 11 pm, because if they have a balanced life they will be more productive in the hours they do work. Our fellows’ accomplishments speak for themselves.

Q: If you could do anything in medicine what would it be?

WW: I am very passionate about what I do right now and enjoy conducting the studies in a collaborative environment. What makes me smile, almost as much as seeing my kids in the morning, is the thought of what my fellows will do that day. What research project they will conduct next or what outstanding papers they will write. Training the next generation physician-scientists gives me a great deal of pleasure personally and professionally.


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