Saturday, July 13, 2024

Power list interview: Wake Forest University medical school Dean Ebony Boulware

Wake Forest University medical school Dean Ebony Boulware joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussion with some of the state’s most influential leaders. Business North Carolina’s annual Power List publication spotlights the state’s powerbrokers.

Ebony Boulware is the dean of Wake Forest University School of Medicine and chief science officer of Advocate Health, the third-largest operator of not-for-profit hospitals. Her move to Wake Forest in January 2023 followed a distinguished career after her graduation from Duke University School of Medicine. She was a faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for about 12 years, then returned to Duke’s medical school to head its general internal medicine section and, later, directed the Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute. She is a graduate of Vassar College, where she played field hockey and basketball for four years. Boulware has two children,
ages 17 and 18.

This story includes excerpts from Boulware’s interview and was edited for clarity.


You were a star basketball player in college. You should have been in the WNBA! But you ended up in an important medical position. How did this happen?
Sports are a great way to learn about teamwork, partnership and leadership. I’ve always been driven to be a part of a team, always been driven to win and to be a part of excellence. I think those core values are what also led me to become a leader in medicine.

Is it unusual for an English grad to be a medical student?
Yes, I think many people, especially when I was entering medical school, were focused on the sciences as their majors, and I was an English major. But I grew up in a family of two doctors, so I had some confidence about just taking the pre-medicine courses. I found that being an English major and in liberal arts was very informative in how I work with people and how I think about things. And so it’s been very beneficial, especially as I think about the research career that I’ve had and thinking about important problems and how to communicate with people.

Wake Forest is expanding into Charlotte, one of largest cities without a four-year medical school. What’s going to happen there?
We’re thrilled to come to Charlotte and expand our programs there. We’re building out a full medical school with the full four years of education. We’re also building our research programs. They’re enhancing our faculty. So we’re really focused on the full spectrum of activities for medical education and research. You already have the hospital because of Advocate Health.

Why don’t we have more medical schools?
Well, we are seeing growth in the number of medical schools, and our second campus is a part of that growth and trying to meet the need. We do have a need to grow the institutions of higher education with regard to medicine. And so we’re working on that at Wake Forest.

Just give me an example of your day. I know no two days are alike, and you have a family, so work-life balance is very important to you?
As soon as I wake up, I go for a run for an hour. I meditate every morning for 20 minutes. I’m just running toward good health and better health. And I get up, make breakfast for my son, get into
the car, get started on emails, do some meetings, and do planning for the school, a lot of strategic planning. We have a lot of problem-solving meetings.

What is the most complex part of your job? Is it dealing with intelligent, engaged, demanding faculty?
You love them unconditionally or there’s some angst unconditionally. OK. Yes, it is truly wonderful students, truly wonderful faculty. It is expanding one school with two campuses. So it’s a very exciting, explosive time for the school. Our growth with Advocate Health is very exciting. I think just the dynamics of change are probably the most complicated aspects of practicing medicine today.

I’m going to ask you a sensitive question, which I also asked former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was the youngest woman and only woman of color to become provost of Stanford University. How did Ebony Boulware achieve what she did? You’ve had a beautifully balanced and successful life. You exude confidence and you command respect. So many others need to know your story and need to aspire to do what you have done. Tell me, what is your secret?
First, it’s an honor to even be in the conversation with Dr. Rice because I’m standing on the shoulders of people like Dr. Rice and my parents, who were early pioneers in terms of gaining professional careers and making success. In my case, my own grandmother could not get to college because she had to clean houses.

My father was part of the first generation of my family to get a college education, let alone go on to medical school. And I’m really standing on generations of people who sacrificed for that. I’ve always kept that in mind. It’s very important to work hard, stay focused and keep my goals in mind.

As you look forward 10 years, tell me where are we going to be as a nation vis a vis health care?
We’re going to be an aging nation for sure. Our hope is that we’re doing health care better and we’re making sure more people can get access to health care. So my number one concern is making sure that everybody can have access to health care.

We are improving the rates of health care insurance. North Carolina just took on Medicaid expansion. That’s an important advance. Where we see that states have taken that on, where we have more access to health care, people do have better health outcomes.

That’s an improvement. But we’re not seeing the narrowing that we’d like to see in many of the disparities in terms of health for rural individuals and people who are racial and ethnic minorities. We’re still seeing big gaps in terms of health and health outcomes. So I’d like to see in 10 years that we’ve made an improvement there.

We can expect that we’re going to see a lot of technological improvement. We’re seeing more care being done in people’s homes outside of the health care system. And the use of things like artificial intelligence, optics, robotics, that’s really explosive.

What did you find different about the Winston-Salem campus, versus your presence at Duke. Did you find differences in the communities, in the culture, in the strategic direction and administrative viewpoints?
Both are wonderful. Winston-Salem is a wonderful growing area. There’s a tremendous investment in innovation. One of the wonderful things that I’ve enjoyed is seeing our Institute for Regenerative Medicine really grow. Director Dr. Tony Atala is an incredible leader. That has really allowed for the institution to grow, which is why I’ve been so excited to join.

The other part is retaining healthcare workers, and having a sustainable future. How difficult is that?
It’s very competitive. We’re fortunate at Wake Forest University School of Medicine to have an outstanding faculty, and we do everything we can to keep them with us as they’re making incredible discoveries. It is a competitive area, so we want to invest in people, make sure we’re out in front and make sure that we’re growing their programs.

We’ve had a huge growth in our research funding over the last several years, and so we’re very excited to be able to invest in our faculty that way.

I talk to a lot of MDs and there’s some discontent, though not necessarily at Wake Forest. Doctors are making less money and working just as hard. I have a lot of buddies who are choosing to retire. What is your observation?
We know we have very high rates of burnout in our profession. Across the entire field, we’re working hard on ensuring that physicians in particular, but nurses as well, and others who are really on those front lines have the right types of rest and integrate action and professional fulfilment so that they want to stay with us. We need this group of people.

I don’t know that I ever met a basketball star who rose to the deanship of the medical school. I know some who became CEOs of businesses. Are you unique
in that regard?
I haven’t polled my colleagues to find out who was engaged in athletics. It’d be very interesting to find that out.

What are you most grateful for?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to help people live longer lives and better lives in the most equitable ways. That’s what really drives me. I’m also grateful to be able to train that next generation of leaders that are coming behind me. That’s the most gratifying component of the work that I do. 

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