Dr. Phillip Lieberman may be one of the few physicians on this year's "Best Doctors" list who suffered from the same disease he treats in his patients. The Memphis native and Central High School graduate had asthma as a child, and that -- along with having an excellent mentor during his studies at University of Tennessee Medical School -- persuaded him to specialize in allergy and immunology.
"It was an opportunity for me to have an entree into medicine in an academic setting," he says, "practicing something I was interested in because of my own experience, and it turned out to be a wonderful choice."
After serving several years as a clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at UT, in 1981 Lieberman began his own practice, Allergy and Asthma Care, in Germantown. He has since witnessed some remarkable changes in his field.
"It has really been revolutionary. We do things now that I never dreamed we could do," he says, "and we can now offer a quality of care for patients that was unimaginable to me when we first started."
As an example, he points to the growing epidemic of asthma, which is increasing around the world, for reasons that no one really knows. One theory, says Lieberman, is that the body's immune system, which in the past -- before we adopted a "civilized, hygienic lifestyle" -- was kept busy keeping parasites at bay. Now that those have been brought under control, "we have this immune system that is revved up and ready to go but has nothing to do," so it attacks more harmless things people encounter, such as pollen.
Even as the number of asthma cases increases, their quality of life has improved, thanks to advances in medicine. "I used to have anywhere from 10 to 20 asthmatic patients a day in the hospital when I first started," says Lieberman. "Now it is very rare for us to hospitalize a person." Much of that improvement is the result of better medications.
"When I started, we had three basic drugs, which were toxic, caused side effects, and only one was very effective," he recalls. "Now we have an 'immuno-modulator' that disables the antibody that causes many allergies, and we have other drugs that counteract the chemicals that produce disease. As a result, we are able to take care of people, improve their quality of life, keep them out of the hospital, and produce far less side effects."
Even so, there is still considerable progress to be made with chronic diseases like asthma and allergies. "Many times we can't eliminate the disease," Lieberman says. "Most people are used to getting sick and then getting well. As a doctor, having to deal with a chronic disease that we can control but not eliminate -- and having the patients themselves learn to adjust to that emotionally -- is perhaps the most difficult task I face."
Even so, the job of an allergist is immensely rewarding.
"Each week there is something new and different to learn, and it is always an advance," he says. "It never goes backwards. Every year we do things a little better than the year before."
Looking around his office, Lieberman smiles and says, "This was probably the wisest decision I could have ever made. After 35 years I still love it as much as when I first started."