I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rob Cohen, a physician, Army veteran, international development worker, and host of the new Democrises podcast. A graduate of Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, he’s a physician/scientist/thinker who has traveled to fifty countries (including Kuwait and Iraq for the fight against ISIS) and believes our global society is afflicted with several potentially deadly but curable conditions. A former campaign staffer for Senator John McCain, he identifies as a “McCain maverick,” believing that the path to fixing our world involves ideas from many parts of the political spectrum (and standing up to misguided or malevolent actors from many of those same parts).
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path as a doctor or healer?
In 2008 at 6 AM, I was staffing a campaign rally for my hero, Sen. John McCain, in Nashua, NH a day before he came from behind to win the New Hampshire primary. He said to the 100 people gathered there, “All you young people, when I’m elected, I’m going to ask all of you, to serve this country.” A few months later, Gen. David Petraeus was testifying in front of Congress about Iraq and Afghanistan, and he said, “This is going to be the longest campaign of this long war.” These are two men I greatly admired, and I knew I had a knack for science (I was already in medical school at the time, and still trying to figure out how I could make a difference in this world). There were so many troops getting wounded in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming an Army doctor seemed like the best way to make a fast contribution. The closer I looked at these countries, the more it became clear that they needed comprehensive economic development. I had just read Jeff Sachs’ book Common Wealth, where he said health is one of the five pillars of economic development (along with agriculture, education, infrastructure, and the rule of law). It seemed very obvious that health was a great place to apply my natural scientific aptitude to trying to make the world a better place.
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
My deepest goal is to help the world build a Type-I Civilization. We can build, defined by astronomers as a prosperous, sustainable, planetary civilization. Or,on, or we can allow our global society to collapse like all local societies have through mismanagement of mounting challenges. Health is one of the pillars of a world like that, but it’s not the only pillar. Now obviously, there are setbacks and failures in trying to push this. There are doubters, cynics, and villains. John McCain and Jeff Sachs, for example, suffered very serious setbacks in their similar quests. Yet they remained undeterred, and never gave up. I always tell myself: if John McCain can endure five years in a POW camp with daily torture, I can endure a few philistines making my life difficult.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Doctor.”
Many of the problems faced by your patients will have little to do with medicine.
There are ways to help the world that don’t involve an inhuman sleep schedule.
Many animal species are going extinct…are you sure you don’t want to work on that?
Don’t be afraid to go outside of your lane. Doctors are better prepared to handle many public policy issues than are most politicians.
The American medical system emphasizes the wrong things. Notice them early. You’re not crazy when wondering why in the world we do certain things.
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
If it’s done right, I think it can help. Many doctors suffer a lot of frustration in the current structure…from cumbersome systems to burnout, to unrealistic expectations, to patients with self-destructive behaviors. I think that shining a light on these challenges can really help the American health care system improve because right now, it’s not producing a healthy nation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
“Reason always prevails…if you market it right.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham. The message is clear: truth has a built-in advantage against falsehood, but it’s only a small advantage. No matter how many advantages (or disadvantages) you have, when it’s time to defeat the more nefarious forces in our world, it will always be a fight, and you need to execute. Another similar quote I love is from Teddy Roosevelt: “We must realize on the one hand, we can do little if we do not set ourselves a high ideal; and, on the other, that we will fail in accomplishing even this little if we do not work through practical methods and with a readiness to face life as it is, and not as we think it ought to be.”
“The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country. Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right.” John McCain, 2000. This is my worldview in a nutshell. Wisdom, humility and courage in a few powerful sentences. And he gave this speech on my birthday.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Shared sacrifice. Solving the mounting problems of our time will require contribution from everyone, and some of it we won’t want to do. But humans are more willing to make sacrifices if they feel like others will too, and that they won’t simply be taken advantage of. If everyone is sacrificing for the greater good, then we all get a big return on our investment. If some people cheat, then the altruists lose, and we get angry. In the near future, the rich will have to pay more in taxes, the poor will have to receive fewer government benefits, old people will have to use less Medicare, young people will have to study more in school, we’ll all have to pay higher prices for fossil fuels and use less of them, we’ll have to eat less meat, and doctors will have to make less money ☺. We cannot solve our great challenges by only focusing on some of the problems or problematic people, or hoping for magical solutions.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please subscribe to the Democrises podcast, and engage on www.democrises.com.Also on Twitter @RobCohenMD and on Facebook @DemocrsisesPodcast.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!