by Leah Ferentinos
Harpur College alumnus and renowned local anesthesiologist Dr. Michael Wolff ’80 returned to campus to walk current students through the intricate process of what it takes to be a doctor.
Wolff’s presentation, “A Day in the Life of an Anesthesiologist,” was the final speech of the fall semester in the Harpur College Physician Alumni Lecture Series. He covered an array of topics, spanning from how to get into medical school to obtaining board certification.
“I’ve been practicing as a physician for 25 years,” Wolff said, “and I’ve never woken up not wanting to go to work. It’s been a very fulfilling, satisfying career.”
Wolff, who graduated from Binghamton University with a double major in biology and anthropology, went on to the Medical College of Pennsylvania and then to New York University for his residency, where he also completed fellowships in neuroanesthesia and cardiac anesthesia. He currently practices at Susquehanna Anesthesia Associates and United Health Services (UHS) Wilson Medical Center in the Binghamton region and serves as the president of the UHS medical staff.
“I always had a feeling that I wanted to be a physician,” Wolff said.
But it’s a much longer process than most realize. Students must spend four years in medical school (after completing their undergraduate degree), followed by three to five years in residency (depending on specialization). Many then choose to pursue a fellowship in their chosen medical concentration.
“Medicine is a great field because it’s a skill that you can use anywhere in the country and get a job,” Wolff said. “However, it’s also a competitive one.”
Wolff said he believes his time at Harpur College helped prepare him for the competitive environment of his profession.
“The level of education I received here was on par with many private schools,” he said. “The competitiveness of the students really prepared me for medical school. In many ways, it really forced me to have my ‘A’ game.”
Wolff has kept Binghamton in the family: His son is also an alumnus, and his daughter is a junior at the University. He has also remained a thoroughly involved alumnus, giving back dozens of hours of his time to mentor current students. According to Pre-Health Professions Advisor Dr. W. Thomas Langhorne, Jr., Wolff is a long-time supporter of the University’s Pre-Health Program, serving as a mentor in the Binghamton Alumni Physician Mentor Program since its inception 21 years ago. Over the years, Wolff has worked with nearly 50 students.
“Many students have an idea that they want to be a doctor,” Wolff said, “but they’re not sure exactly what it entails. This mentor program provides a first-hand view of a doctor’s life, including opportunities to follow a doctor in the hospital, office, or even operating room. It helps students realize if this is really what they want to do.”
Wolff is helping Langhorne increase the number of local alumni who participate in the program.
Job shadowing, advising and mentoring remain crucial to the profession, Wolff explained. Third- and fourth-year medical students complete rotations in a variety of sub-disciplines within the field, which contributes to determining which area of medicine they will ultimately pursue.
“Anesthesiology is not a popular rotation in most hospitals,” Wolff said. “I initially thought I wanted to be an OB/GYN, but the anesthesiologist that I did my rotation with was very dynamic and renowned in the field. That first-hand experience helped me decide.”
Wolff said that there’s never a “correct” decision, just what’s right for each individual person in the field.
“Anesthesiologists often have long days,” he said. “The hours I work may not be what you’re looking for. It’s different for everyone and can be. That’s what medicine is about.”
Wolff described the medical profession as one that offers diverse opportunities.
“Doctors gain so much knowledge throughout their careers,” he says. “You might think that it’s only taking care of patients, but there’s so much more that you can do with it. There are so many opportunities out there for you.”
Students can enroll in an MD/PhD program, which focuses on research and teaching at academic institutions, or even an MD/MBA program in preparation for work in health care administration. The trick to deciding is based on preferred lifestyle, he said.
“Working in a hospital or private practice are very different environments,” Wolff said. “If you want to spend time home with your family, then being on-call 24/7 probably isn’t for you.”
Another factor that may guide a future doctor’s career path is the business side of medicine. In the past, private practice was more popular (and financially feasible). However, because of changes in the health care (and insurance) industry, almost half of all doctors today are employed by a hospital. This is often controlled by economics, Wolff said.
“One of the beauties of becoming a doctor was always that you could be your own boss,” he said, “but life for a doctor is much different now than it was in the past, as it will be again when this generation goes into medicine. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just different. No one can predict what it’ll be. I wish I had a crystal ball.”
Wolff’s advice for now is to not be discouraged.
“You have to follow your passion,” he said. “The most important thing is to be happy with your life.”
In the meantime, he recommended that current students take advantage of everything Binghamton University has to offer.
“Get involved in the University,” he says. “Take as much of it in now as you can.”
Because soon, he said, the testing will never end. The MCAT is taken as an undergraduate for acceptance into medical school, followed by the boards, which are taken toward the end of medical school to become a full-fledged doctor. Next is residency and board certification. And doctors are required to pass recertification exams every 10 years, which Wolff cited as essential.
“Medicine changes,” he said. “You have to keep up with the newest advances.”
In the end, however, Wolff said the process is more than worth it.
“Most importantly, (the practice of) medicine allows you to help people,” he said. “When a patient meaningfully says, ‘thank you, doctor,’ there’s nothing that can beat that feeling.”
Last Updated: 3/27/14