My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Ebony Boulware, MD, FACP
In her 39 years, Ebony Boulware has been many things: an All-American field hockey player, a chemistry tutor, a flute player, an English major, a record-setting college basketball player, a piano player, a wife, a mother, a physician, and a researcher. For all of the things that have held her attention, it is her work on kidney disease that has been among her proudest accomplishments. It says a lot about the physician from Baltimore, Maryland, the most striking of which perhaps is the fact that she is in her heart very much a team player. “I like doing work that can help a lot of people at once,” she says. “When we do research and it finally reaches fruition, it can impact millions of people at a time. That’s why my job is so fulfilling.”
As an Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the Welch Center at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Dr. Boulware works primarily as a clinical epidemiologist, applying research methods to clinical health problems. The Welch Center is a multidisciplinary research center focused on diseases and conditions that impose a substantial burden on the health and resources of the public. Specifically, the center evaluates the application of lab discoveries and the adoption of best practices in clinical settings and populations through patient-oriented research.
Dr. Boulware spends her time reviewing literature, collecting data from patients and the general public, analyzing it, writing papers, and teaching students and trainees. “I’d say I spend 65 percent of my time doing research, about 20 percent teaching and writing grants, and the rest of the time seeing patients,” she explains, adding how being an internist has given her the background she needs for the job. “Being an internist, I’m very comfortable dealing with a broad range of topics,” she says. “It has given me a broader view of what goes into the care of a patient. Being an internist keeps things interesting.”
Life as a researcher is not boring, either. Dr. Boulware finds it to be the opposite. “I like the feeling of contributing to cutting-edge ideas that eventually may get incorporated into policy,” she says. “It’s kind of cool coming up with new ideas.” She says one non-negotiable aspect of the job is creativity. “Research feeds off of creativity. You have to bring your own ideas to it. You also have to know how to interpret your results.” She cites one of her career highlights as her involvement researching the cost-effectiveness of urine screening for kidney disease—a health issue which has historically taken the back seat to more prominent diseases such as diabetes. But now, with interest in kidney disease on the rise in recent years, Dr. Boulware has found herself at the forefront of it and is thrilled. “One reason I’m so glad to have worked on it is because it’s timely. No one ever really had looked into screening for kidney disease, but it’s now being shown that the disease is increasing rapidly and policy makers all over are trying to find out what the best method is for detecting it. So the work we did is now being used internationally.”
She is also passionate about her work on racial disparities in health care; in particular, concerning trust issues that she says continue to plague African American patients. African Americans have been shown to be less trusting of their physicians, and hospitals, and this impacts their health care. “There are stark differences in how people feel,” she says. “I’m proud of my involvement with it because it’s a complex issue.”
While all researchers may yearn to work on projects of their choice, as Dr. Boulware explains, intriguing and timely projects do not exactly fall in one’s lap. “When I came out as a Fellow I thought I could get a paper done in five months!” she laughs, recalling her naiveté. Getting her research funded proved to be a learning experience for the level-headed Dr. Boulware, and interestingly, it is her background as a well-rounded student and athlete that helped her navigate the waters. “Having a research career teaches you patience and perseverance,” she says. “For example, you might have a paper that you think is great and then it gets shredded by your peers! But having participated in sports helped prepare me for it in a way, because I gained skills that are critical to my job. Sports taught me about the importance of practice and perseverance, time management, team playing, working with other people, and leadership. My recommendation to students is to keep yourself as well-rounded as you can because you can bring all of your experiences into your medical career.”
She drew on this experience when faced with a difficult period a few years ago, when she was having trouble getting funded. She feared for her future. “I thought my career was in jeopardy,” she admits. But at her lowest point when she feared the worst, instinct kicked in and she began to use the skills she had learned on the basketball court to turn things around. She had to work hard resubmitting grants and working with colleagues to figure out ways to keep her projects funded, but her efforts paid off, and within a year, she found herself back on top. “I almost had too much to do!” she laughs.
Her passion for diversity runs deep. Originally a Cleveland, Ohio native, Dr. Boulware now prefers the east coast for its variety. “There is diversity in this area,” she says, “you get a little bit of flavor!” Similarly, having grown up with parents both of whom were physicians, she chose to go in a different direction in college, choosing English as her major. While many physicians have spouses or partners that they met either on the job or at school, her husband works in corporate sales. “It’s very different from what I do and I like the fact that it is,” she says.
And while sports have proved to be of great benefit to Dr. Boulware, she is quick to point out how the pursuit of any activity, no matter what it is, can help aspiring physicians-to-be. “Medical school can be a very one- or two-dimensional experience,” she says. “The things you need to get into medical school are not necessarily the things that will make you a good doctor. Because of this, schools are looking for a different kind of student these days,” she says. “It has a lot to do with your ability to integrate. It’s all about the patient now—what their preferences are, that they trust you, etc. Being a physician is really an integrated field. I think that’s why I was drawn to it.”
Although pressed for time as a researcher, clinical epidemiologist, and mother to a two-year-old and three-year-old, Dr. Boulware still tries to incorporate her interests into her daily routine—playing the piano every now and then or picking up her flute. While it may be hard to imagine anything that Dr. Boulware cannot do or has not at least tried, it is easy to see how she craves stimulation, variety, and challenge in the environment around her. Luckily for her, internal medicine has all of it.
Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.
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