Howard Baron epitomizes many medical doctors in Southern Nevada — highly trained out-of-state residents lured here by the opportunity they saw in a high-growth region.
The 53-year-old pediatric gastroenterologist grew up in Minnesota, where he attended medical school and did his residency in pediatric care. Baron went to UCLA for a fellowship in pediatric gastroenterology intending to return to join a private practice in Minneapolis in 1993. He took a detour to Las Vegas and joined the practice of Sharon Schaffer instead.
He hasn’t looked back.
“The opportunity was fantastic here from that standpoint,” Baron says. “There was only one pediatric gastroenterologist in the state of Nevada at that time, and she was looking for a partner. It seemed like a solid opportunity with a ton of growth going on here at that time, and it seemed like an opportunity to build a practice quickly and be part of the community. In more well-established medical communities, it’s sometimes harder to break in and harder to make as much of an impact.”
Schaffer has since retired, but Baron and two other doctors comprise the Pediatric Gastroenterology &Nutrition Associates. The doctors are specialists for children’s digestive diseases such as Crohn’s, colitis, pancreatic and liver conditions, including congenital diseases and birth defects. They provide pre- and postcare for children who need liver transplants. They address nutritional diseases, celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, food allergies, acid reflux and other digestive system disorders, including those caused by stress, anxiety or emotional issues.
Baron is a native of Canada whose family moved to Minneapolis when he was 6. His father sold furniture; his mother was a secretary. His brother, an attorney, jokes with him that their parents bought T-shirts when they were toddlers that said, “My son is a lawyer” and “My son is a doctor.”
Baron’s interest in medicine was sparked by a survey in junior high school in which he scored high for a career in science. The thought of being a doctor appealed to him, and he started to prepare himself for that career when he was in high school. His parents encouraged him.
“Even though my family weren’t medical people, health was a very high priority value for them,” Baron said. “I grew up in a family that respects physicians and health care workers. I have an aunt who’s a registered nurse in Canada, and she was always held in high esteem in the family.”
Deciding to become a doctor, however, is easier than choosing a medical specialty.
Baron says he went from idea to idea during training. When he started medical school at the University of Minnesota, he was interested in child psychiatry. He did some extra research in it and extra rotations and was going into a residency program that led him to that career. At the last minute, he decided to switch gears and got a general pediatric residency because he wanted to make sure he had a really good medical background in children’s diseases.
Baron credited the pediatric doctors who supervised him for treating him better than those from other specialties.
“I found it a much more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere,” Baron says. “I enjoyed the interaction with parents as an advocate for their kids more so than when you’re dealing with adults who aren’t the best advocates for themselves and don’t do what’s in their best medical interest. The attending physicians were much more collegial and in good spirits than other areas of rotation. There wasn’t this sense of one-upmanship and competitiveness that I found in other specialties like surgery and internal medicine.”
Baron said one of his first experiences as an intern at the University of Minnesota was in the pediatric intensive care unit. He liked it and applied for it and did research projects. He was selected for a fellowship at San Diego Children’s Hospital to do critical care but delayed going when he was selected as a chief resident in the pediatric program at Minnesota.
“During that time of deferral, the people that were mentoring me in critical care were burning out, getting a divorce or moving away,” Baron says. “Each and every one seemed to be having some sort of an issue, and I decided critical care didn’t have a long life span for me.”
The pediatric residency led to a doctor encouraging him to enter pediatric gastroenterology.
“Gastroenterology was a good mix of procedural things but also the hands on of clinic work that I enjoyed with critical care and as well dealing with some of the emotional issues of psychiatry that had to be dealt with as well,” Baron said. “And the guy mentoring me back in Minnesota, I enjoyed his style and sense of patience. Frequently, it’s like that when someone you met spurs you on like that with an interest in a certain area. That’s what happened with me.”
Pediatric gastroenterologists handle endoscopic procedures, place feeding tubes, biopsy livers, insert catheters and perform other procedures. Some of the procedures may be similar for adults, but there’s smaller equipment and more finesse needed to deal with parents and children, Baron said.
Pediatric training is necessary because children have developing digestive systems that differ from those in adults, Baron says. The scope of work is different with those working with adults focusing on cancer screenings, dealing with heartburn and diverticulitis.
What pediatric gastroenterologists see in Las Vegas is similar to what’s seen in other major metropolitan areas. But Baron says Southern Nevada has a higher Medicaid population than other regions of the country. It consists of 40 percent of his practice, and children on Medicaid tend to have higher incidents of congenital birth defects, development delay problems, feeding problems and other disorders, he says.
“The population naturally lends itself to subspecialized care,” Baron says. “I think if you look at people below the poverty line, they are more likely to have teenage pregnancies and more likely not to have strong prenatal care. They have fewer resources to take care of kids with complex problems and tend to populate emergency rooms more for primary care than sticking with primary care follow-up.”
Baron and his wife, Bonni, have two daughters. Alayna is a first-grade teacher in Las Vegas and Zoe is a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno. He said he made the right call to come to Las Vegas and even though the weather didn’t factor into his decision, it turned out well in hindsight compared with the brutal winter in Minnesota. Although he opted against working as a child psychiatrist, he said his decision to work with children has been rewarding.
“I find it rewarding when a parent thanks you or a child gives you a hug because they recognize you’re doing something that’s beneficial to them,” Baron says. “I can deal easily with a 4-year-old that behaves like a 4-year-old. What I have a hard time dealing with is a 40-year-old that behaves like a 4-year-old.”