"From my earliest recollections, I have wanted to be a family physician," says Col. Jennifer Junnila Walker, MD '93, GME '96, MPH. This dream took her to Seattle University, where she accepted a four-year Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to help pay for her education.
"My family was supportive but didn’t have the financial means to send me to college," Dr. Walker explains. "In addition to the scholarship, ROTC also helped me to remain very focused on my goals as I studied and trained to meet the academic and physical requirements."
When it came time to apply to medical schools, the Medical College of Wisconsin rose to the top because of its focus on primary care.
"From the moment I interviewed at MCW, I knew it was the right fit," Dr. Walker remarks. She moved from Washington to Wisconsin for medical school, graduated in 1993, and then completed her residency at the Waukesha Family Practice Center in Waukesha, WI, in 1996.
"My medical education and residency training certainly prepared me well to practice in any primary care setting, and even more so in military medicine," Dr. Walker says. By being equipped to treat or triage a wide variety of diseases and traumas, Dr. Walker was ready to practice in any situation. During her career, she would be tested in military garrisons in remote locations, in major bases and centers of military medical training, and also in combat hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to using her skills to treat patients, Dr. Walker found that the military supported and encouraged physicians interested in career development in other disciplines, such as teaching and medical leadership. She completed a fellowship focused on faculty development at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, WA, in 2005. Through a joint program with the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Walker simultaneously earned a master’s degree in public health.
"These advanced degrees enhanced my abilities as a provider, educator and administrator," Dr. Walker adds. "The fellowship helped me develop leadership skills in military medical education while the public health curriculum improved my ability to prevent disease and care for populations."
Dr. Walker would not have to wait very long to use her new knowledge in these areas, as her next assignment took her to the Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX, in December 2005. She began as a faculty instructor in the Interservice Physician Assistant Program and later became the program's academic director – responsible for coordinating 32 military and civilian instructors delivering more than 5,000 hours of instruction annually to 200 students. Dr. Walker brought this experience to future assignments in Colorado, Iraq and Hawaii before being named chief of clinical operations for the United State Pacific Command’s Office of the Command Surgeon in August 2013.
"As the senior clinical advisor for the command post covering more than half of the earth’s surface and every military branch, it was my job to make sure that every service member received the same standards of care," Dr. Walker shares.
One of her major projects involved linking all of the US Pacific Command's trauma resources into a single system, which required creating linkages between many specialists.
"Being a primary care provider, I could speak all of their technical languages enough to make solid connections," Dr. Walker says. In another project, she led the development of the first Asia Pacific Military Health Exchange, which was held in Da Nang, Vietnam in September 2015 and convened more than 400 participants from 23 countries to discuss best practices in military medicine and global health issues.
"After the first event succeeded in its goal of being a forum for sharing knowledge and experience, a second conference was held this August in Kuantan, Malaysia," Dr. Walker explains. The conference grew to include nearly 500 attendees from 27 countries, and planning already has begun for the 2017 Asia Pacific Military Health Exchange in Singapore. After her time in the US Pacific Command, Dr. Walker served as director of graduate medical education at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., before retiring from military service in September 2016 after more than 20 years of active duty.
Throughout all of her assignments and advancements in leadership, administration and teaching, Dr. Walker always maintained a clinical practice.
"It reminded me why I get out of bed every day," Dr. Walker remarks. "It also helped me understand what my staff were experiencing in the clinic if I had personal experience with things like navigating new electronic health records or processes for referring to specialists."
Now, Dr. Walker is bringing the clinical and teaching management approach she has refined around the world to the Hawaii Island Family Health Center in Hilo, Hawaii, where she serves as medical director, as well as to the Hawaii Island Family Medicine Residency at Hilo Medical Center, where she is a full-time faculty member.
"There is such a need for primary care here on Hawaii Island,” Dr. Walker says. "I feel like I can help the family medicine residency program advance its mission of meeting the primary care needs of the State of Hawaii."
– Greg Calhoun
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