Featured Leader: Sam Kam

Blazing a Nontraditional Career PathSam Kam

Over the years, Sam Kam (PhD, 1979) has pursued careers spanning from drug discovery as a medicinal chemist and clinical medical practice as a specialty physician, to the business side of health care through ownership of innovative companies involved in the managed care industry.

A native of Hong Kong, Kam graduated from the College of Pharmacy, National Defense Medical Center in Taiwan. He then came to the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy where he spent more than six years working toward his doctorate degree under Philip Portoghese.

“We encountered difficulties in synthesizing a target compound,” Kam explained. “However, these difficulties forced me to think and act independently, to be innovative and to further develop my problem solving skills. The college also provided me with a friendly and stimulating environment to develop myself.”

During his time at the college, he met Christina Chen (PhD, 1979), who is now his wife. Although they were both graduate students at the same time, they didn’t become a couple until reconnecting after starting their respective careers.

After receiving his doctorate degree, Kam worked as a research chemist at American Critical Care (now DuPont Critical Care) in Chicago, where he developed an ultra-short acting beta blocker. Together with fellow Medicinal Chemistry alum Paul Erhardt, Kam developed two target compounds, Flestolol and Esmolol (the latter of which is still in clinical use today).

He spent the first year synthesizing his target compound, but then had to spend the next two years doing what he calls ‘patent synthesis.’

“The goal was to synthesize as many analogs around the target compound to prevent other companies from coming up with a similar patentable analog to compete with us,” Kam said. “The problem was that we knew these compounds would not be active even by structural activity analysis, but I still had to do it to protect the company patent.”

Discouraged with the amount of time and energy he spent on this project, he decided a career in medicinal chemistry was not what he wanted. Looking for a career which could provide him independence, he decided to enroll in medical school at the University of Illinois. He then completed specialty training in gastroenterology at the University of California-Irvine.

Kam credits his education and experience as a medicinal chemist with helping him transition into medicine.

“The main thing I learned with my PhD training is how to turn an idea into reality,” Kam said. “To accomplish this, it requires innovation, planning, execution, problem solving and a lot of persistency. That helped me as a practicing physician and in my later careers.”

After practicing as a gastroenterologist for 15 years, Kam transitioned to the business side of health care. He currently is CEO of two independent physician associations: Physicians’ Healthways IPA and Advantage Care IPA. He is also CEO of Central Health Plan, which is a Medicare Advantage HMO.

With his experience going from medicinal chemistry to health care management, Kam believes today’s pharmacists can expand their role in the new era of managed care and health care reform by learning about medical management.

“The traditional role of dispensing drugs in a retail pharmacy is not considered to be cost effective from a managed care standpoint. That’s why medical and pharmacy management are becoming more and more important for pharmacists,” he said. “With the nation’s budget deficit, the government is cutting health care budgets and will continue to do so, and the health care industry is looking for ways to cut costs. The government is also raising the benchmarks of quality of care which in turn requires the health care industry to increase spending to meet these new standards. For changes in the health industry, good or bad, there is always opportunity for pharmacists to grow and expand.”

Kam lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife Christina. They have one adult daughter.

This Featured Leader is part of an ongoing series from the Center for Leading Healthcare Change that profiles pharmacy leaders in the community.