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Cal Wilson, MD, Dedicates Career to Elevating Family Medicine Training Around the World

Dr. Cal Wilson
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 the globe. 

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 doctors.”

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 country.

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 care.

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 years.

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 Rwanda.”

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 support.”