Q&A With JAAD Editor Dirk M. Elston, MD

Doug Brunk

March 17, 2022

When dermatologists are uncertain about a diagnosis, they might seek help from a book or book chapter written by Dirk M. Elston, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society of Dermatopathology who has authored more than 600 peer-reviewed publications and 92 textbook chapters.

After earning his undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University and his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Elston completed an internship and a dermatology residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, as well as a dermatopathology fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. He currently is professor and chair of the department of dermatology and dermatologic surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Elston is one of five authors of "Andrews' Diseases of the Skin)," coauthor with Tammie Ferringer, MD, of the "Dermatopathology" textbook, and editor in chief of the Requisites in Dermatology series of textbooks. In 2018, he succeeded Bruce H. Thiers, MD, as editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and in 2021, received the AAD's Gold Medal Award, which is the academy's highest honor.

In an interview, Elston reflected on his mentors, shared how he manages his many responsibilities as a clinician, teacher, and editor, and talked about the promising future of dermatology.

Who inspired you most to pursue a career in medicine? My grandmother, Annie Elston, was a physician and dedicated her life to helping others. She was a front-line medic during World War I, helped to run a neonatal syphilis ward after the war, and practiced pediatrics in New York City until her death. She was a great role model.

Did you enter medical school knowing that you wanted to become a dermatologist? If not, what was the turning point for you? I didn't really know much about dermatology when I entered medical school. I fell in love with the specialty during a rotation.

What was the most memorable experience from your dermatology residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center? There were so many interesting patients, including many tropical diseases.

Why did you choose to pursue a fellowship in dermatopathology? What was it about this subspeciality that piqued your interest? Great teachers, including Tim Berger, MD, George Lupton, MD, and Dean Pearson, MD. They inspired me to seek a dermpath fellowship and I was lucky enough to train with Wilma Bergfeld, MD.

In your opinion, what's been the most important advance in dermatopathology to date?

Immunohistochemistry changed the specialty. Now molecular diagnostics is a second wave of major advancement.

How do you stay passionate about both dermatology and dermatopathology? The patients, residents, and fellows keep it interesting. It's a two-way street. I learn as much as I teach.

You've had a remarkable run at the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, starting as deputy editor in 2008 before becoming editor in 2018. What's been most rewarding about this role for you? It is a labor of love and such a privilege to see everyone's best work.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, what were your most significant challenges from both a clinical and a personal standpoint? Fear of the unknown is always a challenge with a new epidemic and worse with a pandemic. The patients still needed to be seen but it was a challenge with some buildings closed and some personnel afraid to come to work.

Is there anything you would tell your younger self in terms of career advice? Enjoy every step of the journey.

Considering your various work responsibilities as a clinician, teacher, and editor, what's your strategy for achieving a work-life balance? A good friend of mine is fond of saying that balance is an illusion. There is only resilience. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. Make time for family, and decide what has to get done today and what can wait until tomorrow.

What development in dermatology are you most excited about in the next 5 years? We are in a golden age of therapeutic innovations that are life changing and lifesaving for our patients. I never would have believed I would see complete cures of patients with widely metastatic melanoma. From psoriasis to eczema to malignancy, our therapeutic armamentarium is dramatically better each year. It makes the practice of medicine exciting.

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