Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, new director of the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin (AHW) Endowment and senior associate dean at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) School of Medicine, has taken head-on many monumental challenges in his life.
As a 10-year U.S. Navy reservist and combat veteran, he was deployed across the world, including assignments in Afghanistan, where he treated servicemembers wounded in combat.
“Some of my proudest moments are taking care of wounded servicemembers who are home today with their families because of the work I was able to do overseas,” says Dr. Ehrenfeld, who earned his MD from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard, before completing his residency and receiving a commission in the Navy.
Although he’s no longer officially serving in the military, he continues to be active in that space. He has testified in Congress and advocated for transgender servicemembers and those who were banned from serving in the military, earning an Emmy nomination for his work on the New York Times documentary Transgender at War and in Love.
“I’ve always been inspired to use the opportunities that I’ve had to help others,” says Dr. Ehrenfeld, an esteemed researcher and current chair of the American Medical Association’s prestigious Board of Trustees.
Now, Dr. Ehrenfeld, whose research has been funded by the National Institute on Health, Department of Defense, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others, is ready to address health challenges in Wisconsin.
As director of AHW, he will guide strategy and operations of a statewide philanthropy that serves as a resource to health research, academic medicine and community initiatives across Wisconsin and seeks to improve the health of the state’s residents.
“I’m excited to accelerate our work with more than 400 partners across Wisconsin, to substantially improve the health of our communities,” he says. “We face tremendous challenges here in Wisconsin with an aging population, a growing chronic disease burden, and a healthcare workforce that simply can’t keep up.”
One of the keys to improve the health of Wisconsin residents will be to leverage the ever-growing field of bioinformatics, which Dr. Ehrenfeld describes as the intersection between technology, information science and health.
“We’re going to be increasingly relying on technology to scale capacity and to help reach people today who have been underserved, particularly in remote and rural areas,” says Dr. Ehrenfeld, an expert in the area.
At the core of his work is a focus on health equity, especially among African American, Hispanic, LGBTQ and other racial and minority groups who Dr. Ehrenfeld says continue to live sicker and die younger.
“Those things frankly should be unacceptable, and we need to be deeply committed to solving these challenges,” he says.
To date, AHW has invested more than $250 million in promising biomedical research, community health initiatives and the development of the health care and public health workforce – including funds that are building the capacity of communities to address issues such as mental and behavioral health, stigma and access to care, Dr. Ehrenfeld notes.
As far as what drew him to the position at MCW, moving his family, including 6-month-old son, Ethan, and 11-year-old bulldog, Maddie, to Milwaukee, it was the groundbreaking work that was occurring at the school and the ability to create innovative programming that can touch many lives.
“It was a dream job that I had to pursue,” Dr. Ehrenfeld reflects.
Another plus of the job is the opportunity to continue practicing as an anesthesiologist one day a week. It’s that ability to continue working on an individual basis with patients and families that he says will keep him focused on larger goals.
“I absolutely love taking care of patients and am grateful for the privilege of still being able to provide that direct hands-on care in the operating room,” Dr. Ehrenfeld shares.
While he acknowledges that every day will bring different challenges, he also knows each one will present more opportunities to improve lives, something he thrives on.
“I’m driven by a desire to have an impact,” Dr. Ehrenfeld says. “I chose to come to the Medical College of Wisconsin because I saw the opportunity to have an extraordinary influence on the lives of thousands across the state.”