Cal Wilson, MD could have led a quiet life in private
practice in the suburbs. As a family physician, he was sure to influence the
lives of many. But the quiet life wasn’t for him. So with the help of his wife,
he has spent his career pioneering training programs in family medicine around
Dr. Wilson participated in a few medical missions while in
private practice. Yet he soon found it harder and harder to return to his
stable practice in Golden, Colorado, after seeing the needs overseas. So after
10 years of private practice, he sold it and moved to Ecuador, where he
remained for nine years.
He didn’t move just to provide much needed medical care. Dr.
Wilson saw Ecuador’s need for quality general practitioners.
“We had gone to Ecuador with the idea that the care we were
providing could be provided by their own doctors,” he said. “So we started a
program to develop family medicine doctors who could then teach future
Throughout this time, his wife was also actively involved.
She started various programs for kids with special needs.
It took about nine years, but the programs the two developed
were sustainable. So they came back to Colorado, and Dr. Wilson joined the
Department of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
His first task as a new faculty member was to start the
family medicine program at University of Colorado Hospital. It was a big shift
for the hospital, considering that at the time, they focused mostly on specialty
care. Today, the Department of Family Medicine is one of the largest in the
USAID Program Improves Primary Care in Jordan
After the department was up and running, Dr. Wilson once
again began thinking about international work. He learned of a United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) program that was trying to elevate
the level of primary care in the country of Jordan. They asked him to serve as
training advisor, and he and his wife packed their bags and moved to Jordan to
take part in this five-year program.
Dr. Wilson conducted a needs analysis and set up a
curriculum, all the while aiming to make the program sustainable—teaching those
he trained to become trainers themselves.
“It was fun setting up an interdisciplinary program,” he
said, explaining that the culture in Jordan wasn’t exactly keen on the value of
such an approach. But five years later, he asked his first training group:
What’s the most important thing you got out of training?
“More than half of the men and women said that they learned
the value of teamwork,” he said. “They appreciated what other disciplines
brought to patient care.”
Dr. Wilson met with another cultural challenge while in
Jordan. “In many parts of the world, teaching is very formal,” he said,
explaining that they were of a culture that didn’t challenge authority. “I gave
my students permission to not only question me, but to even question my
conclusions and challenge me on what I did.” He says it was hard for them at
first, but eventually they had great conversations.
When the program concluded in 2004, Dr. Wilson and his wife
came back to the U.S. He explains that in the wake of 9/11, the medical
profession saw increasing student interest in global medicine. It was around
that time that a global health program was started at the downtown campus. Dr.
Wilson worked with its creator, Dr. Blair Gifford of the UCD Business School,
and eventually the program moved to the Anschutz Medical Campus. It became the
Center for Global Health, and Dr. Wilson served as the first director. It
quickly became an interdisciplinary program, with interest from the dental
school, physical therapy, nursing and public health. Like his past ventures,
Dr. Wilson ensured that the CU programs were about more than just providing
Global Health Program Provides Training in Rwanda
In 2005, Dr. Wilson was approached by Centura Health about a
program in Rwanda. The medical school in this country was in the process of
setting up a series of residency programs. With so few doctors in Rwanda—there
were only five surgeons in the entire country who were qualified to be
teachers—they needed visiting professors to fill in curriculum gaps. After
securing a grant, Dr. Wilson and approximately 50 CU doctors from various
specialties taught courses ranging from one to four weeks over the next few
During this time, Dr. Wilson and the other doctors were
going back and forth between the U.S. and Rwanda.
“One of the real dangers of traveling back and forth is that
you begin to see all kinds of opportunities. And that’s exactly what happened.
It got to the point that my wife and I decided we had to move there. So in
2010, I stepped down as director of the global health program. And we moved to
He found himself in a situation similar to Ecuador. The
population was struggling with the demands of primary care.
“You just can’t teach all of it in medical school,” he
explained. They needed a training program for family medicine providers, and
that’s what they developed.
Dr. Wilson and his wife remained in Rwanda until 2013 when
he decided to retire. “I wanted more flexibility. And we just wanted to
continue trying to meet needs in various countries.”
Reflecting on a Career in Global Health
The most gratifying part of Dr. Wilson’s career has been
seeing the sustainability of the programs he helped develop. Another best is
seeing the accomplishments of program graduates. Case in point: He recently had
the privilege of hosting one of the first Rwandan graduates, Dr. Vincent Cubaka,
at his home in Colorado. Dr. Cubaka is currently working on his PhD at a Danish
University in order to become a professor in Rwanda. He spent a week in Denver
visiting with Dr. Wilson before traveling across the country giving
presentations on his community health research in Rwanda.
“It’s so nice to see things come full circle. I remember
choosing him for residency—I remember thinking, this guy has potential,” Dr.
Wilson said. “He is one of the most capable doctors I have seen in many
countries. He just naturally understands how to relate to a patient.”
As he reflected back on his career, Dr. Wilson was very
clear about one thing: His accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without
support. “It’s not me by myself,” he said. “My wife was with me this whole
time, and very often she opened up some interesting contacts for us.”
He adds, “Wherever I
was teaching, there was a whole team with me. I’m grateful for all the