TAMEST Member Profile: Carlos Roberto Jaén, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), UT Health San Antonio

Carlos Roberto Jaén, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Carlos Roberto Jaén, UT Health San Antonio, grew up in Panama, and later moved to the United States to study and begin his career in the cross-section of family medicine and population health. 

While he explored most of his academic pursuits in Western New York and Northeastern Ohio, he says he finally found his “home away from home” at UT Health San Antonio in 2001. He has dedicated the last twenty years in Texas to helping patients, improving understanding of health disparities and lowering barriers to health care access for underrepresented communities.

His special interests include improving preventive care for individuals of all ages and preventing complications from chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. He is also passionate about building and studying high-performance primary care offices and focusing on the whole health of a patient instead of just treating symptoms.

Dr. Jaén has been selected to the Best Doctors in America yearly since 2002 and is dedicated to building a healthier San Antonio. He serves on the program committee for the upcoming TAMEST Annual Conference, Forward Texas – Imperatives for Health, which takes place June 20-22, 2022, in San Antonio. He has also served on the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards committee.

TAMEST connected with Dr. Jaén to find out more about his life, work and commitment to TAMEST. 

Tell us a little about yourself: 

I am a family physician, so throughout my entire professional life, I have practiced family medicine and had my own panel of patients. For the last thirty-some years, that has been a constant. In 2001, I was recruited to come to San Antonio to be the chair of Family and Community Medicine, UT Health San Antonio, and here I have stayed for twenty years! 

Part of what attracted me to San Antonio is the majority-Latino community. At the time there was another TAMEST Member, the then-president of the UT Health San Antonio University, President Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who recruited me specifically.

His warm embrace and commitment to diversity made me feel closer to my Panama roots. His engagement was probably the main reason I ended up in San Antonio.

What made you decide early on in your academic career to study in the United States?

I was offered a full scholarship for university in Western New York, and I said, “Why not? I’ll give it a shot.” That was the beginning of the process. Then, I met my wife. We will have been married 40 years next year.

I did briefly return to Panama but moved back to do my Master’s in Epidemiology. That is when I fell in love with epidemiology. I did my work and when I was almost done, I thought – maybe I should go to medical school? It was an afterthought.

I finished my Ph.D. during my first and second year of medical school, and I defended my dissertation as a third-year medical student. I literally had to ask for the afternoon off to go defend my dissertation during my OBGYN rotation, which thankfully they agreed to. 

How has your Ph.D. background strengthened your abilities as a medical doctor?

I thought I wanted to go to medical school in college, but I did my graduate work and fell in love with public health, community health and epidemiology. Frankly, I thought I was going to do just that.

However, when I was looking for public health jobs in Latin America, most required a medical degree. So, I went and got one. When I went to medical school though, I also fell in love with clinical medicine and what we can do in that context.

Now, I no longer see family medicine and population heath as separate. I see them as fully integrated. I feel very privileged that I get to sit in both places, work on different projects and integrate those two areas of need.

Tell us a little about your research:

Before moving to San Antonio, I was able to develop a very strong research team that stuck together for about 20 years. We did studies in a center that included Western Reserve University, University of Colorado, Lehigh Valley Health Care System and Rutgers University. We had a center that did direct observation of primary care studies to help understand what happens in interventions and different components.

Most recently, in San Antonio, I was the Principal Investigator of a large national demonstration project at the Patient-Centered Medical Center Home at UT Health San Antonio that was funded by the American Academy of Family Physicians. This project was really a way of thinking about primary care that goes beyond being physician-focused, to being patient-centered.

It is important to think about what a patient needs and how to make it happen. Patients need more than just a doctor; they need to be addressing their behavioral components. They want to be addressing their chronic disease management.

We are developing new ways of primary care that are revolutionary regarding how we make that happen.

Do you see patient-centered medicine as the future of primary care?

If you are asking about my hope, yes. However, I do think it is an uphill climb because so much of health care has been transformed into a commodity. If you cannot afford it, you are often excluded.

I think if we ask ourselves deeply about what we do as clinicians, we are committed to alleviating suffering, reducing mortality and that is a very powerful way to approach our work.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

The pandemic has been devastating, particularly for communities of color and people who are poor. Many of the front-line workers still haven’t been vaccinated, not necessarily because they don’t want to be vaccinated, but because they haven’t had the opportunity to do it.

Many of my patients’ family members, and even some of my patients, have died because of COVID-19.

Another effect of the pandemic is that COVID-19 patients, particularly those who are unvaccinated, have displaced so many people from hospitals. In fact, much of the work that is necessary to prevent complications from chronic illnesses is affected.

While it’s been hard, we’ve also been creative regarding how we respond. For example, we recognized during the pandemic that a lot of our patients were being impacted by food insecurity. So, we systematically started asking patients about food insecurity and when we found out they didn’t have food, we put together resources and worked with local foundations to get to their homes and deliver groceries.

How did you first hear about TAMEST?

I started coming to TAMEST conferences as the TAMEST Protégé of TAMEST Member Dr. Fernando Guerra. I don’t recall the year, but it was before my election to the National Academy of Medicine in 2013.

I found it a fascinating organization that was very exciting and very connected.

What was your experience with the TAMEST Protégé Program?

It was great for networking. I was able to develop a closer relationship with Dr. Guerra and other TAMEST Members at my organization as well as across Texas.

I gained friends, and it was a good way to make some early connections. It also in some ways demystified the academies and showed me that these people weren’t that different from myself.

Since becoming a TAMEST Member, you have served TAMEST in many capacities. Talk about your experience on the program committee for the upcoming 2022 TAMEST Annual Conference in San Antonio.

For me, it’s about the opportunity to have a conversation about the role that health plays in the whole future of Texas. It is my hope that the 2022 conference will highlight the importance of education, the importance of primary care, and the importance of a whole list of other aspects.

If we don’t have healthy Texans, all our dreams are shattered. We have to directly confront the fact that our state has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of uninsured individuals, not to mention we have systematically excluded people who otherwise would have been included in Medicaid.

I’m also looking forward to the fact that TAMEST 2022 is going to touch on climate change and its potential effects. That’s exciting!

TAMEST is non-partisan. It is scientific. It’s our job to tell the truth.


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