Michael Abramoff, MD, PhD, FARVO

Published - Written by Celine Witherell, Digital Health Strategy - American Medical Association

Dr. Michael Abramoff is a renowned scientist, practicing ophthalmologist, and entrepreneur. Dr. Abramoff is the Robert C. Watzke Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa. He is the founder and CEO of AI-based diagnostics company IDx, and the Principal Investigator of the study that led the FDA to approve the first autonomous diagnostic AI, which makes clinical decisions without the aid of human expertise.  Dr. Abramoff was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, received his US citizenship and loves living in Iowa. 


Q: What artist or band is on your most played list right now?
Michael Abramoff:
Well, this answer changes for me but right now I’d have to say the Lumineers.


Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?
A stack of Michael Crichton books. He’s a physician/scientist/author. I like historical fiction and he’s a great writer. I also always re-read my Marcus Aurelius – he was one of the stoics. There’s a book I keep in my office by Scott Adams [who created the Dilbert comic] called How to Build an Edge: Develop Your Talent Stack that I like to revisit.


Q: Who inspires you and why?
My grandfather inspires me because he persevered among the terrible losses our family suffered from Communism and Nazism. Julian Simon is someone who’s inspired me. He believed strongly in human ingenuity. Simon’s philosophy was that with human intelligence and smarts, you can overcome almost any problem. He’s famous because he did a wager with Paul Ehrlich about the scarcity of certain metals 10 years later. Simon predicted that because of human ingenuity, prices would fall, and he won the bet. My famous colleague Bob Watzke also inspires me, and I carry his named Professorship. He was a retinal surgeon who’s been an inspiration in terms of combining medicine with technology.


Q: How do you define innovation?
I define it in terms of benefit because I’m a doctor and I think in patient outcomes. It’s only worth while and innovative if you’re making something better, especially patient’s lives. I coined the term “glamour AI” because I work in artificial intelligence. Glamour AI is AI that’s technologically exciting but doesn’t improve patient outcomes. It’s not innovation to me. Innovation is anything new that makes patient’s life better.


Q: How has medicine shaped you as a person?
I love taking care of patients. There’s a medical/scientific idea that doctors must do no harm. The idea of “nil nocere” “first, do no harm” is interesting if you work in innovation. Plenty of people say that if you want to innovate in healthcare, you need to be willing to take risks and it’s unavoidable that people are harmed or will die, because otherwise the innovation cannot go ahead. I think about it differently. I think first we should do no harm, and then we can innovate. It means that you do the utmost to know whether your innovation works in the clinic and in the real world by testing things in the real world instead of just in lab experiments. As a researcher in medicine, you learn quickly that some things work in the lab but don’t work at all when used with real patients. The “do no harm” concept has been a guiding principle in my life.

The AMA Thanks Dr. Michael Abramoff for sharing his expertise in our previous virtual panel discussion about AI, and for his continued engagement with the Physician Innovation Network. 

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