Gastroenterologist Linda Nguyen Selected as 2021 Master Clinician

Clinical Professor of Gastroenterology  & Hepatology and 2021 Master Clinican Awardee, Linda Nguyen, MD

Growing up in southern California, Linda Nguyen, MD, considered several career choices: marine biologist; astronaut; physician. Fortunately for the thousands of patients she’s treated over the course of her career, she chose the last one. 

This year, she was selected to receive the Stanford Medicine Master Clinician Award, which honors a Department of Medicine physician for their commitment to patient care. The award also recognizes the uniform support of peers in viewing the master clinician as a physician who possesses exceptional competence, knowledge, skill, diligence, doggedness and expertise. 

Nguyen was nominated by two colleagues: Leila Neshatian, MD, clinical associate professor of gastroenterology & hepatology, and nephrologist Glenn Chertow, MD, the Norman S. Coplon/Satellite Healthcare Professor of Medicine. In his nomination letter, Chertow commented that “despite being extremely busy and very much in demand, Dr. Nguyen has always found a way to see patients who need her guidance. She never fails to give them the time and attention that patients with motility disorders require.”

On learning that she had been chosen as the Master Clinician for 2021, Nguyen said she was “deeply moved and grateful to receive such a distinguished honor. It felt like receiving a lifetime achievement award, which reinforced to me that choosing the difficult path does lead to priceless rewards.”

Curiosity inspired a career 

When Nguyen was in high school, she told her father that she wanted to become a physician. He asked her why. “It’s a hard life,” she recalled him saying. He advised her to pursue an “easier career.” “But easy isn’t for me,” she said. “I’ve always been drawn to challenges. More importantly, I wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives.” The results speak for themselves.

Nguyen attended a combined Bachelor of Science and Medicine degree program at UC-Riverside and UCLA, completing her training in 1999. She did her residency and fellowship training in gastroenterology at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. She is currently a clinical professor of medicine and vice chief of clinical operations for the division of gastroenterology. She also serves as clinic chief of the Digestive Health Center. 

Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese heritage, never aspired to become an academic physician. “Throughout my education and training,” she said, “I never encountered any professors who looked like me, so I didn’t grow up seeing myself in academia. My plan was to go back to southern California, open a GI practice and be a very good clinician.” But during her fellowship years, she began to delve into the field of gastroparesis, a chronic condition in which the stomach inexplicably cannot empty properly. She was hooked by the mysteries of the digestive system.

In 2008, Stanford Medicine recruited her to direct the neurogastroenterology program, a position she held until stepping down in 2021 as she transitioned into her current positions. “Neurogastroenterology is the arena where the gut and the brain intersect,” she commented. “It is a very challenging field, since the currently available tests are often inadequate to diagnose the underlying cause of patients’ symptoms. This often leads to delays in diagnoses.” 

She counts developing the program as one of her career highlights. “In the beginning, I was the director of one person: me. Today, we have a multidisciplinary team of 10 full-time faculty, a GI psychologist, three advanced practice providers, dietitians, and social workers, who provide state of the art clinical care and conduct cutting edge research that spans the entire spectrum of neurogastroenterology disorders.” 

And this past year, her division established an advanced fellowship in neurogastroenterology -- the first in the country. It is a joint fellowship in collaboration with the autonomic neurology group at Stanford, to train the next generation of neurogastroenterologists.

Linda Nguyen, MD (right), performs a procedure. Image courtesy of Stanford Department of Medicine. 

For the love of food and quality of life 

Gastroparesis and motility disorders are Nguyen’s area of specialty. These chronic conditions are often difficult to treat because there is a lack of reliable diagnostic tests and effective therapies. Patients may experience a variety of GI symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and/or constipation for years, with significant impairment in their quality of life, especially in relation to food and eating.

“Food is so much more than what to eat,” Nguyen commented. “We are all social beings who gather with friends and families to connect around food.” Imagine how it must feel to be someone who has a chronic digestive disorder who can’t eat. That person’s ability to socialize and enjoy being with people can be severely limited.

“I saw my mother go through this when she had stomach cancer,” she said. “After most of her stomach was removed, she was not able to eat. I vividly recall her going through the motions while sitting at the dining room table with our family so we could all be together.” This motivated Nguyen to help patients return to some semblance of eating real food so they can participate in the rituals of eating and socializing.

Her research endeavors spring from observing her patients and questioning what she sees. For example, a few years ago she began noticing that many of her gastroparesis patients also suffered from migraine, and they were seeking treatment in both gastroenterology and in neurology. This prompted an inquiry into how the autonomic nervous system was triggering both events and a clinical trial of a vagal nerve stimulator to mitigate both conditions. In that trial, 40% of a small group of patients responded positively to the treatment.

She is grateful to the mentors, patients, and philanthropists who have supported her research over the years. “I want to thank them for their generosity and trust in my vision. Without them, my research would not be successful,” she said.