There’s more than a hint of Steve Jobs in Dr. David Agus. Agus is dressed in his customary white button-down shirt, dark sweater, jeans and slim, black leather monkstrap shoes, having learned the benefits of adopting a daily uniform from his former patient Jobs, he of the black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers.
In fact, Agus, an award-winning oncologist and biomedical researcher who has become a household name in the US for his role as a CBS news contributor and two bestselling books about maintaining one’s health (“The End of Illness” and “A Short Guide to a Long Life”), gained more than just sartorial advice from Silicon Valley. He collaborates regularly with people like semiconductor pioneer Andy Grove and cloud computing executive Marc Benioff, because, he said, he learned from these master CEOs how to take a broader view of his chosen field.
“I learn from all these people and we talk science, and their insight is tremendous because they approach problems differently,” he said.
It’s Sunday night, and Agus is at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel. He just arrived for the Global Forum, a gathering of 70 of the world’s thinkers hosted by Israel’s National Library, to discuss how the People of the Book can use their ancient lore for contemporary needs.
It was Shimon Peres, the honorary chairman of the event, who convinced Agus to attend. Agus and Peres are friends – though he’s not the nonagenarian’s doctor – and the two meet every six months or so. This time, Agus will be discussing Maimonides at the National Library, from the perspective of what he, Agus, believes.
But first he had to go back and read some of the good doctor’s words. It’s been a long time since Agus studied Maimonides at Philadelphia’s Akiba Hebrew Academy. What he found resonated.
“Maimonides was a leader first,” said Agus. “He listened to his body and he was very prescriptive. In order to create normative behavior change, you have to be a leader.”
It hasn’t only been Maimonides and Steve Jobs who guided Agus; his own grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Agus, a renowned Conservative rabbi and theologian, was a remarkable role model, he said. He was a practicing rabbi with a congregation, as well as a scholar, a fact that was ingrained in Agus early on and what keeps him working as a clinician, along with all his research. David Agus’s own father, Zalman Agus, is a professor emeritus of medicine and physiology at University of Pennsylvania, while his younger brother, Michael Agus, is a pediatrician at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.
“I’ve had remarkable role models from early on,” he said.
A graduate of Princeton, and then University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, Agus did his residency at Johns Hopkins University. While doing his oncology fellowship at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center he first met Grove, who encouraged him to move out to the West Coast where “things are done differently,” said Agus.
Agus moved with his family to California to direct the Spielberg Family Center for Applied Proteomics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he led a team to develop technologies for guiding doctors in making healthcare decisions tailored to individual needs.
What Agus found was that “the Silicon Valley way of thinking” — Agus lives in Los Angeles, but works with colleagues throughout the state — made much more sense to him. “We learn how to look at problems,” he said. “I love pure science but I want to translate it, I need to be with patients,” he said.
It’s pretty much what he has done throughout his career.
He’s currently known and frequently quoted for his 65 rules for better health, as prescribed in his new book, “A Short Guide to a Long Life.” The list starts with caffeine and lots of smiles, continues with red wine, salmon and exercise, and includes comfortable shoes and a baby aspirin before bed (consult your doctor on that one.)
“We have to learn to measure the system that’s us,” he said. “It’s all about what you eat and how it interacts with body.”
Now Agus combines teaching, research and patient work, along with spending a lot of time at places like the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Ideas Festival and TEDMED – TED for the health field. He’s also at the CBS studio at 4 a.m., several mornings per week.
“You get a passion to change things, and I decided I don’t care if I’m uncomfortable on camera,” said Agus, who calls himself an introvert by nature. “I need to be a role model and it’s awkward, but you have to do it, over and over again. I get to talk to four million people every morning on CBS. I can just talk, I can call a spade a spade. I look at my patients losing their lives on a daily basis, so I’ve got nothing to lose.”
So he’s a Jewish doctor in Beverly Hills with a wife and two kids, but Agus has also gotten accustomed to hanging out with celebrities.
Neil Young calls him “my mechanic”; Jobs helped him with the title for his first book and Black Eyed Peas frontman and technology buddy will.i.am is a buddy.
Agus tells about a moment earlier this week when musician Neil Young was on Howard Stern’s radio show and was telling the shock jock that he said in a recent Rolling Stone Magazine interview that he used to smoke marijuana a lot, but now only smokes occasionally, and that Agus, his doctor, told him that it was inappropriate to say that publicly.
Agus smiles when he relays the story.
“I’m privileged to take care of some remarkable people,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know them because we’re in the same community, lecturing in the same places. It’s an amazing world where if I need help solving a computer problem, people at Google help me. If I have a teleconferencing problem, Cisco helps me.”
It’s also helped him take a different, broader view of the diseases he examines. Cancer, heart disease — they’re not biology problems, Agus believes, they’re system problems.
“I meld much more with the Silicon Valley way of thinking,” he said. “It’s like what Israel has become. You need to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv without traffic so they created Waze,” referring to the Israeli GPS app that helps drivers avoid jams.
Technology and medicine, it’s what makes Agus tick.
He’s excited about Apple’s upcoming iWatch, which will allow people to monitor the metrics in their bodies. He wants people to measure how much they move in a day, and suggests tie-ins with insurance companies and gyms, rewarding users with insurance discounts and gym memberships for keeping their bodies moving, and healthy.
“In the future, you’ll collect your own data and have a better discourse with your physician,” he said. “There’s a conversation happening in your body – this is what Maimonides got — and for the first time we have the technology that helps you listen. You can use that data to learn. Good things are happening.”
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