Faculty Spotlight: Clifton Watt, MD

Clifton Watt
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Fall

Some physicians know from a young age that they want to become doctors. Clifton Watt, MD, wasn’t one of them. “I think it’s okay to try things out and figure out what you want to do,” he said. “Some people might consider that wasted time, but I think any time you spend soul-searching is valuable.”

Dr. Watt was born in San Diego and grew up in the East Bay. After graduating from Acalanes High School in Lafayette as valedictorian, he went to Stanford University. “I went to college during the Silicon Valley boom, during the time that engineering was really the ‘in’ thing,” he said. He majored in computer systems engineering but also took premed classes, since many of his friends were studying biology and he was also interested in medicine.

After graduating from college, he worked for two years at Sun Microsystems as a software engineer. “It was a fun time,” said Dr. Watt. “There was free food, ping pong tables at work, and lots of employee gatherings.”

Yet after a few years, the glow began to fade. The work became a bit tedious, and he felt his career path was limited. A friend had made the leap from computer engineering to medicine, and Dr. Watt decided to follow in his footsteps, spending a year as a nursing assistant at the Palo Alto VA’s inpatient hospice care center. “Instead of playing video games and working at a tech company, I was doing manual labor – lifting patients, cleaning them up, and feeding them,” he said. “A lot of my friends wondered why I would do that, for less pay, but it was a good way to understand what medicine was.”

It turned out to be a profound experience. “It was very different than taking care of patients in a regular hospital, where the patient gets better and leaves,” said Dr. Watt. “Patients don’t leave hospice. They die there. But they were there to die in the most comfortable, dignified way possible. I got to know some of the patients and their families really well. They included me in the whole process of dying, and treated me almost as if I was family. I think that’s what really drew me to medicine.”

Dr. Watt learned some invaluable lessons by being present with patients through this ultimate passage. “The thing that still sticks with me now is the art of listening,” he said. “As doctors, we always talk about the importance of being a good listener, but in that environment, it’s especially valuable. Sometimes patients might be delirious or have visions because they’re nearing the end of life. They might say, ‘I see my wife there,’ although she’s been gone for years. I was always taught to just listen, rather than saying, ‘No one is there.’ You got to listen to patients vocalize what they were seeing, hearing and experiencing at the end of their life.”

Caring for veterans meant he heard incredible stories about their lives. “Patients might not remember what they had for breakfast, but they had crystal-clear memories of what happened in Vietnam,” he said.

He was also inspired by his colleagues, who saw their work as a calling, not just a job. “From the chaplains to the massage therapists to the physicians, you could tell that taking care of the patients was their life, and they loved it,” said Dr. Watt. “Even though it was emotionally draining, it was a very rich experience. I have a lot of memories from that time.”

Focusing on Clinical Medicine

That experience convinced Dr. Watt to pursue medicine. He earned his medical degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, then completed his internal medicine residency at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

He returned to Stanford in 2009, spending a year in the lab of cardiovascular researcher Euan Ashley, MRCP, DPhil. In his lab, he created a standalone software, HeatMap Builder. It allows users to display which genes are upregulated or downregulated in a tissue sample, using a grid with a hundred or more small boxes of different colors – each one representing a different gene expression in a sample.

“It makes the data easier to see visually than a set of numbers,” said Dr. Watt. “Today everyone is writing apps, but at that time it wasn’t so common to write your own software and publish it.” The software could be downloaded for free, and people wrote him from all over the world to ask for help using it. “I was proud of using my entrepreneurial skills to create something from scratch,” he said.

As much as he enjoyed that project, Dr. Watt ultimately decided he wanted to work more closely with patients. He completed the Kennamer Fellowship in General Internal Medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, helping surgeons do preoperative evaluations and manage hospitalized patients, as well as teaching residents.

Because of his scientific background, cardiology always interested Dr. Watt. “The physics, mechanics, and fluid dynamics of the field appealed to me,” he said. “Also, it’s a data-heavy field with lots of published research. In addition, I found that while I liked the cerebral nature of medicine, it’s also fun to do procedures, which is something that cardiology has that not every subspecialty does.”

He completed his cardiology fellowship at UC Davis School of Medicine, then joined the Berkeley Cardiovascular Medical Group, a private practice in Oakland. Dr. Watt was happy to return to his East Bay roots, and spent four years working there before his recruitment to UCSF in 2018.

Serving His Community

Dr. Watt and his colleague, Jie Yang, MD, are the first two cardiologists to be based at the new Berkeley Outpatient Center, a joint partnership between UCSF and John Muir Health. The center, located in West Berkeley at 3100 San Pablo Avenue near Ashby Avenue, provides primary care as well as a number of specialties.

“I thought it would be a good change to be part of a university with more of an academic and learning environment, while staying in the same neighborhood, where I have experience with referring doctors in the East Bay,” said Dr. Watt. He was also excited to be part of the creation of a new clinic.

His patients include those referred by John Muir internists in the building, as well as UCSF patients who either live in the East Bay or were attracted by the easy availability of appointment slots in the new clinic. Dr. Watt also cares for a number of patients from his previous practice who followed him to UCSF. In addition to Dr. Yang, the cardiology team in Berkeley includes a full-time cardiac nurse and medical assistants. UCSF adult congenital heart disease (ACHD) specialists are also onsite once or twice a month. This is particularly convenient for young adult patients outside of San Francisco who have graduated from their pediatric cardiologists at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and need to see an adult ACHD specialist.

The Berkeley Outpatient Center also offers onsite stress testing, echocardiography, heart monitoring and vascular testing, allowing patients to access these diagnostic tests without having to make a special trip into San Francisco.

In addition to seeing patients in Berkeley, Dr. Watt devotes a few weeks each year to caring for hospitalized cardiology patients at Parnassus. He also spends about one day a month at Parnassus reading echocardiograms and performing structural interventional echocardiography during catheter-based procedures.

The thing that Dr. Watt enjoys the most about his work is meeting new people and hearing their stories, whether it’s a patient who survived homelessness and a difficult childhood and now owns a thriving business, or a first-generation college student from an immigrant family who aspires to become a doctor herself. “It’s a privilege for people to let you into their lives,” he said. “Patients tell me that they appreciate that I sit down with them, listen, and take my time. Even if I can’t solve their problem or make them 100 percent better, by listening I feel like I’ve already started to help them.”

He also appreciates the opportunity to practice in the community where he grew up. “Not surprisingly, I often have things in common with my patients, whether it’s where I went to high school, or UC Berkeley, where my three sisters went to college,” said Dr. Watt. “There are still parts of the East Bay that have that small-town feel, and there’s a lot of pride in your community.”

Dr. Watt is married to Suzanne, a technology executive. Together they have two young children. He continues to follow developments in biotechnology, given his background as a computer engineer, and does some consulting for companies involved in medical devices and clinical trials. In his free time, he enjoys weight training, biking with his family, and occasionally losing to his seven-year-old son in chess.