Omar Atiq, MD, FACP, is a gentle giant of Arkansas’s health care industry. His calm demeanor and unhurried, deliberate way of speaking belie his imposing list of titles and achievements. Atiq is a professor of medicine at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute in Little Rock, specializing in head and neck oncology. He splits his time between working with patients and training the next generation of doctors, but that’s only his day job. Atiq is also a major figure in the American College of Physicians (ACP) the second largest organization of physicians in the country. Furthermore, he sits on the Arkansas State Medical Board and is the president and director at the Arkansas Cancer Institute. He also holds a slew of former titles like president, speaker of the house and chairman of the board of the Arkansas Medical Society.
The beginning of Dr. Atiq’s story is not exactly what you might expect. Raised in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, Atiq did not start out with a great passion for medical care, nor did he dream of becoming a doctor since he was a child. Rather, he saw it as one of a number of routes he might take. “Where I grew up,” Atiq explained, “there were relatively few ways that you could ‘be your own boss.’ In other words, [careers where] you didn’t have to depend on others to do what you wanted to do at the level you wanted to do it, without being hindered by extraneous circumstances. I came down to two: law and medicine.” Those were the two options that suited him best and would grant him the most freedom. But how to choose? Atiq’s father was a lawyer, and his mother said to him, “We have a lawyer in the house; one is enough. How about you do medicine?” Medicine also offered a greater chance to travel and to practice in different places. Every country has its own laws, not to mention states, provinces, cities, etc. But human biology changes very little from place to place, so medicine is as universal as it gets. There was no single moment of epiphany, according to Atiq, just a simple buildup of factors that made the answer clear.
After graduating at the top of his class from Khyber Medical College at the University of Peshawar, Atiq was offered a scholarship to go to the United Kingdom to finish his education. To the dismay of many around him, he turned it down in favor of coming to the United States. “In fact,” he said, “my dean picked up the phone, called my dad and told him how wrong I was to leave a scholarship and a guaranteed job when I returned to my alma mater.” When asked why he would turn down what must have seemed like the obvious choice, Atiq answered: “When I was in medical school, it was clear to me that the training in the United States was the best, most comprehensive training in medicine.” He explained that the unique structure – combined with a culture both in medicine and in general that was highly conducive to personal responsibility and growth – made the U.S. a more appealing option, despite those who tried to convince him otherwise. Nevertheless, Atiq is glad to say that he has no regrets and would encourage others to do the same.
With the support of his father, Atiq began his residency in internal medicine in 1985 at Loyola University of Chicago, followed by a medical oncology fellowship at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His decision to go into oncology was driven not by epiphany, but by the fact that it, along with neurology, was a term that did not exist in his mother tongue at that time. That was enough to gain his interest, so the path was laid for a long and incredibly prestigious medical career. When he completed his training in 1991, Atiq thought that he would return home to Pakistan to start an oncology program at his alma mater. Sloan-Kettering had some of the world’s most advanced resources for cancer treatment, but he knew that such resources were not available in most of the United States, much less a developing country. To prepare for conditions back home, Atiq looked for a smaller place to work for about a year and found the Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff. He did not end up returning to Pakistan, at least not in any long-term sense.
Jefferson Regional did not have an oncology program when Atiq arrived – only an oncologist from Little Rock who came two days a week to see the cancer patients. And when he left, there was no one to take care of them. As a result, the hospital was willing to give Atiq whatever resources he needed to start a full oncology program. The program went extremely well, and after about five years, Atiq approached the board of the hospital to pitch the idea of a dedicated cancer center. This bore fruit in 1991, in the form of the Arkansas Cancer Institute, which was the first place in the state where a cancer patient could get all of the treatment they needed under one roof. Eventually, other hospitals across the state began to follow suit, greatly expanding the options and availability of cancer treatment in Arkansas. While working in Pine Bluff, Atiq began also working as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UAMS in Little Rock, which was attracting more and more of his interest. UAMS’ Myeloma Center, for example, was and is a global leader in myeloma research, and for a time, was performing the most advanced and innovative treatments for multiple myeloma in the world.
In 2014, UAMS asked Atiq to become a part-time paid faculty member at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. He then spent about half of his time at UAMS and half in Pine Bluff. The next year, he became the director of the Cancer Service Line. In 2019, two of Atiq’s colleagues at Pine Bluff had left for other places. As a result, he had to make the call to stop splitting his time and work full-time at either UAMS or Pine Bluff. “It was difficult to recruit people when you weren’t present,” he explained, which led him to close his Pine Bluff practice. He and some of his colleagues had decided previously that, “because of the absolute explosion in the knowledge base for cancer, it became clear that we would have to sub-specialize. There wouldn’t be anyone who was extremely competent in all areas of cancer medicine.” They divided oncology into sections, and Atiq took over the head and neck subspeciality, though he also does work on skin cancer. “We have, in my opinion, one of the best head-and-neck cancer services in the country,” Atiq said with pride. “Our head-and-neck surgeons are second to none.” But Atiq gives all the credit to his colleagues, like Dr. John Dornhoffer, who is the current chair of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery.
In his day-to-day work, Atiq spends the majority of his time dealing directly with head-and-neck or skin cancer patients. “Sometimes there are other patients who have either known me or I’ve taken care of their families who request that I take care of them,” he said. And he does so, as long as he can do it efficiently, while his remaining time is primarily spent teaching medical students. After 2019, Atiq stepped down as the director of the Cancer Service Line, meaning he no longer has any administrative duties and can dedicate his time to education and care. In 2020, Atiq made national news by forgiving the medical debts of 200 cancer patients for Christmas, clearing out roughly $650,000 of debt. Everything so far, however, has only been the story of his medical practice, and Atiq has been plenty busy outside of work hours.
For decades, Atiq has been a member of a variety of organizations for physicians, such as the Arkansas Medical Society, the Arkansas State Medical Board and the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America. In many of these, he has served in important leadership positions at the highest levels. He has also taken part in organizations that have nothing to do with medicine, like the American Muslim Peace Initiative (of which he is the founding chairman), the Pulaski Academy Board of Trustees and the Fifty for the Future (of Pine Bluff). But the one that stands above all, and promises to stand higher still, is his participation in the American College of Physicians.
Until recently, Atiq served as the chair of the board of governors for the organization, a tenure that ended because he was elected by his peers to take over as president of the College in 2023, the first to be from Arkansas. As an organization specifically for internal physicians, the ACP is the largest specialist society in America and one of the largest in the world. It has chapters in all 50 states, with over 160,000 members focused mainly in the U.S., but with many others scattered across the globe. The ACP is heavily involved in health care policies. “I chaired the health and public policy committee for the past two years,” Atiq explained, “and we published six major policy papers, which inform our advocacy. So, we had policies on health care disparities, how to identify them, how to address them and that’s a huge subject.” So large, in fact, that they had to divide it into subsections, such as veteran’s health care or the corporatization of health care. As president, Atiq will be the foremost representative of the College’s stance on these issues, and he takes that seriously.
Dealing with corporatization is especially critical to Atiq. “There are actually public equity firms that are buying physician practices, and the college wants to make sure that the sacred patient-physician relationship remains paramount,” he explained. The ACP believes that doctors should be sufficiently compensated for their work, but caring for patients takes priority over everything else. All of the College’s policies are bent towards making sure that all patients receive the care they need – regardless of color, creed or economic status – as well as the freedom of patients to choose their physicians. “The physician-patient relationship is sacred and transformational, ill-represented by the term ‘provider,’ which is transactional in nature, and does a disservice to the relationship – a relationship that said ‘I will shepherd you through hard life decisions, and I will be your expert companion along your health journey,’” he said. “The word provider flips the dynamic from the valued physician-patient relationship to a consumer buying goods from a knowledgeable salesperson. A physician is not a ‘provider,’ and a patient is not a ‘consumer,’ he continued.
“Being someone’s physician is the highest honor and privilege bestowed by a patient. It is a trust to be revered, which informs the physician’s immutable dedication to patient interest above all else.” There is also, as Atiq explained, a darker connection to the past that makes the term “provider” still more uncomfortable: There is evidence that in Nazi Germany, Jewish physicians were striped of the title “arzt,” meaning doctor, and instead called “behandler,” roughly translating to provider, as a way to diminish their work.
Between the role he will soon play in medical policy and advances in medical science, Atiq is excited for the future. “I’m an optimist,” he remarked, “and I’m also a realist, or so I think. I truly believe that our best times are yet to come.” And he just might be right.
In the span of his career, for example, the Human Genome Project took billions of dollars and over a decade to develop. Now, an individual can have their genome sequenced in a few weeks for a few thousand dollars. But what is even more important than technological advances, in Atiq’s mind, is that “As a society, as a country, we are going toward making sure that everybody has the same opportunity for efficient care that someone with resources has.” Atiq said he looks forward to a time when health care is universally accessible and totally patient-focused.
“[Medicine] is really a societal matter,” he said. “No one wants to get sick. But when we get sick, I think it becomes our combined duty to that fellow citizen to take care of them in a way that we would like to be taken care of. I think we are moving toward that.
“I think it is still a long way to go, but I’m excited about the younger generations finding this [way] to be so much more efficient and inclusive, and doing it in a cost-effective manner as well.” In addition to this cultural shift in ideas of accessibility, Atiq said he is also very excited about the medical industry’s evolution from management of disease to healthy living and prevention of disease, which he calls the most significant and exciting ongoing transformation in the field of medicine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so the saying goes, and so an emphasis on promoting health and illness prevention should save a great deal of after-the-fact care.
Atiq’s closing statement was one of inexorable optimism: “I think we have a great group of physicians in our state – of nurses, of other people who are involved in health care – and I think we’re going in the right direction.
“I’m lucky to have all four of my children go into medicine. I didn’t ask them to, but they chose it, and I’m delighted that they have. That might tell you something about my faith in where medicine is going.”