Robert Orenstein, D.O.’87, is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Phoenix, and he chairs the division of infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic Arizona. He has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association since January 2013 and is a reviewer for a number of other medical journals and publications in his area of expertise. He’s been on the forefront in research on infectious disease. But among all those hats, one stands tallest.
“I am a clinician. I do research because it helps my patients,” he says. “That’s the source of my energy.”
For all the hats he wears, in 2019 Orenstein was honored by the American Academy of Osteopathy (AAO) with the highest award it bestows on a non-member. The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to osteopathic principles and to the osteopathic profession; exhibited outstanding efforts and special contributions to promote osteopathy; continuously shown support of and collaboration with osteopathic organizations; and have a vision that is complementary to the academy’s mission.
He was honored as the 18th recipient of the award at the AAO’s annual business meeting in March.
Orenstein started his medical career in rural practice but realized that wasn’t his calling. Instead, he followed the lead of “outstanding role models” in infectious disease whom he worked with in an internship at Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, MI. There and in his residency in internal medicine at Geisinger Medical Center in central Pennsylvania, he witnessed the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“Nobody knew anything about this disease. My partner and I became the experts,” he says. “It drove you to become a clinical educator and passionate care giver. The ‘90s were a big time for clinical trials for the management of HIV. All of us became clinical trial managers and developed mechanisms for treating patients, especially those in the inner city who didn’t have access to university-based trial groups.”
Orenstein says treating those patients and, sadly, attending their funerals grounded him.
“As an osteopathic physician who thinks about the whole patient, that disease and its psychological and social aspects train one well as a humanistic physician. I used to have more patients in hospice than the oncologists,” he says. “I got to know people from very different backgrounds. It opened my eyes to have compassion toward people who lived in poverty.”
He served for a decade as the director of the HIV/AIDS program at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Medical Center and as medical director of the Virginia Commonwealth University HIV/AIDS clinic before moving to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, in 2002. He served there as the internal medicine residency coordinator for infectious diseases and practiced inpatient and outpatient medicine as a member of both the divisions of infectious diseases and general internal medicine. His focus moved from HIV to the prevention of hospital infections.
“That area took off nationally. There were incentives to undertake initiatives to reduce hospital infections,” he says. “One of the ways to remain resilient in medicine is to change with the times. That led me to the next thing, the big epidemic of the bacteria clostridium difficile. We did one of the first studies in a hospital setting that showed you could reduce the bacteria by wiping surfaces with bleach twice a day.”
In 2010 Orenstein joined the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, where he continues to see complex inpatient and outpatient cases of infectious diseases. He was appointed chair for infectious diseases in 2012 and chair of the Mayo Clinic Enterprise Infectious Diseases Specialty Council in 2017. A Fellow of both the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American College of Physicians, he has lectured extensively on topics of infectious diseases and has won several awards for undergraduate, graduate and continuing medical education teaching at Mayo. Through it all, he’s enjoyed his specialty through the lens of osteopathic medicine.
“Infectious disease, to me, is one of the most exciting specialties to be in. The field has evolved so much,” he says. “I went into it because I love the detective stuff, the epidemiology.”