My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Erik A. Wallace, MD, FACP
When medical students fall in love, compromise becomes part of the equation, as decisions about where to do medical residencies and where to begin careers are delicately discussed and carefully negotiated. For ACP Fellow Dr. Erik Wallace and his future wife, Dr. Nichole Wallace, the first hurdle they faced was managing a long-distance relationship for 3 years.
The two medical students met during the summer following their first year of medical school while both were working for the National Youth Leadership Forum in Boston. He was a student at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, and Nichole was attending Brown University Medical School in Rhode Island. The couple agreed to do their residencies—he, in Internal Medicine, she, in Pediatrics—in Alabama, so Nichole could be close to her family. When the couple’s next move took them to Tulsa, Oklahoma because Nichole chose to pursue a Fellowship in Child Abuse Pediatrics, she promised, or perhaps predicted, “You get to select our next move, Erik.”
Life beyond California
Dr. Wallace laughs as he recalls his wife’s promise. Born and raised outside of San Francisco, he readily admits he never imagined life beyond the west coast, but says, “I had wonderful experiences and exceptional mentors in both Alabama and Oklahoma.” The physician-couple remained in Tulsa for 10 years, managing busy careers and adopting two little girls, who are now ages 10 and 7. Dr. Wallace says that outside of his career, his life completely revolves around his family and their daughters’ activities.
Dr. Wallace joined the teaching staff of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine as an Assistant Professor, was later promoted to Associate Professor, and by 2012, was appointed Vice-Chair for Education in the Department of Internal Medicine. During his tenure, he also served as Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency Program, and later became the Internal Medicine Clerkship Director. In addition to his teaching and administrative responsibilities, he saw patients in his primary care practice and supervised medical residents in clinic and at two hospitals in Tulsa.
As recent as several months ago, however, the prospect of that “next move” began to emerge after Dr. Wallace learned that the University of Colorado School of Medicine was preparing to open its first branch in Colorado Springs and would be hiring an Associate Dean to oversee the branch. Dr. Wallace’s goal was to someday become a Dean of Education, and he especially liked the idea of helping to establish something that would be brand new. He applied for the position, and after months of a rigorous interview process, was hired in January 2014 to be Associate Dean for Colorado Springs Branch at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Dr. Wallace refers to his new post as “the opportunity of a lifetime,” and says, “My goal at Colorado Springs is to create a superior medical education experience for the students, so they will become outstanding physician leaders, especially in the area of reducing health care disparities.”
Dr. Wallace’s dual desire to create physician leaders and reduce health care disparities began taking shape in 2005 when he was recruited by his department chair in Oklahoma to participate in the Professionalism in Contemporary Practice program at the Stanford University Faculty Development Center. The Stanford program was a one-month facilitator training program designed to address issues relevant to contemporary medicine—issues like cross-cultural communication and team-based care.
Following that experience, in 2007, Dr. Wallace and the other physician leaders at the University of Oklahoma began focusing on the need to help address the 14-year difference in life expectancy within Tulsa County. The university renamed its Tulsa branch campus, the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine and began developing curriculum to train physicians how to best serve the health care needs of underserved populations. In 2009, Dr. Wallace participated in the university’s Summer Institute, a week-long community immersion program that required faculty to work across disciplines, alongside students in the Tulsa community to learn firsthand the struggles patients face that affect their health—things like getting and keeping a job, paying bills, and finding transportation.
“My experiences at Stanford and with the Summer Institute completely changed the focus of my career,” says Dr. Wallace. “Medical school and residency taught me how to diagnose and treat illness,” he says, “but my time in Tulsa’s Summer Institute is where I learned about barriers to healthcare.” “And the experience of working with disadvantaged patients,” says Dr. Wallace, “taught me how to be a better doctor.”
The path of leadership
Growing up, Dr. Wallace recalls being goal-oriented from an early age. He was passionate about playing baseball and was picked for all-star teams during his Little League years, and in his junior year of high school, his team captured the North Coast Section title. Off the field, he was a good student. “I was always a serious child and loved to learn,” says Dr. Wallace, “If I was not outside playing sports, I would read my World Book encyclopedia or almanac just so I could learn stuff.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, Dr. Wallace discovered he not only loved learning, but also enjoyed helping others learn. “I have always loved teaching,” he says, “in college I would fill my days with classes and in my free time serve as a teaching assistant.” His passion for teaching never wavered and when he entered medical school classmates noticed his enthusiasm for helping others and elected him class president all four years.
Dr. Wallace says he was not “born a leader,” but over the course of his academic and professional career he has certainly been recognized as one. He has done research on the topic of leadership and his curriculum vitae is full of articles, presentations, and courses he has developed on the subject. Not surprisingly, he is the recipient of numerous teaching and service awards, including ACP’s 2011 Walter J. McDonald Award for Young Physicians.
Dr. Wallace served as both a member and Chair of ACP’s Council of Young Physicians (CYP) as well as pre-course director of ACP’s LEAD program. As Chair of the CYP, he was also an ex-officio member of ACP’s Board of Regents. The knowledge he gained from the Stanford program and his service to ACP helped him realize that teaching medical students to be good leaders was a niche that needed to be filled. “Leadership was not formally taught in medical school or residency programs,” he says, “and yet medicine is a stressful profession, full of strong personalities, where there can be lots of conflict.”
The power of listening
Dr. Wallace acknowledges that in addition to his experience and interest in the field of leadership, he has learned a great deal from “dozens” of mentors during his lifetime. “I chose internal medicine because the best clinicians and the best medical educators I was exposed to were internists and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s who I want to be like. I want to do what they do, be as smart, as engaging and as passionate as they are.’”
In particular, he cites his former Dean from the University of Oklahoma and ACP Master, Dr. Dan Duffy, MACP, as “an exceptional leader” who greatly influenced his career. “Dan Duffy has such a passion for medical education,” says Dr. Wallace, “and he is incredibly personable. He listens to others and truly cares about what they have to say.”
Dr. Wallace believes the art of listening to others is an aspect of the physician-patient relationship and a quality of leadership that cannot be minimized. “Listening to patients and really hearing the obstacles they face sheds light on why they may not take medications as prescribed or why they miss appointments,” says Dr. Wallace. “It is vital for students to understand the problems their patients face if they truly want to help.”
Dr. Wallace is optimistic about the future of medicine. “In ten years, medicine may look dramatically different,” he says, “but it will always need outstanding physicians.” And so it follows, it will always need outstanding medical educators and leaders, doctors like Dr. Erik Wallace, who will view conflict not as a threat, but as an opportunity for dialogue, and who will work hard to create a culture of listening in the halls of medicine.
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