By Chuck Wasserstrom
It’s something you probably never think about.
When there’s a medical emergency situation, you go to the emergency room – and the emergency physicians are doing everything they can to fight for you.
When emergency physicians need assistance, though, who is leading the fight for them?
People like Dr. Andy Walker – that’s who.
Dr. Walker, who graduated with a BA in biology from UTC in 1981, is an advocate for emergency physicians. He is a member of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM), a former member of its board of directors, and edits its newsletter called “Common Sense.” In addition, he is president of AAEM’s Tennessee state chapter.
“All of those activities are related to being an advocate for emergency physicians and their patients,” Dr. Walker said. “Emergency physicians provide the medical safety net for this country. We take care of anybody with anything anytime regardless of the patient’s ability – or even willingness – to pay for that care. We’re the only doctors in this country who do that. In fact, we’re legally required to do that by federal law.
“Because of that, and because of the increasing corporate influence on the practice of medicine, emergency physicians are under a great deal of stress. We’re kind of at the mercy of our hospital administrators, because we don’t have an office-based practice that we can control. We have to have good hospital administrators to help us build a highly functioning emergency department. We have to push them to do the right thing for our patients. Also, a lot of emergency physicians don’t own their own practice; they’re employed by big corporate management groups. So again, we don’t control our own practices or our own emergency departments. That’s often a struggle. We stand in a very precarious position trying to take care of patients and get what we need from hospital administrators and corporate employers. So AAEM defends emergency physicians from all of those pressures.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Walker received the AAEM’s James Keaney Award, which honors an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the organization. Dr. Walker was recognized for his work in the Tennessee legislature in protecting emergency physicians from restrictions on their right to practice.
“It made me very, very proud to win the award, as it’s nice to be recognized by your peers,” he said. “I’ve won some and lost some fighting in the legislature. They were going to pass a law that legalized non-compete clauses for doctors. As that applied to emergency medicine, it meant that if I worked for one contract management group – and the hospital switched to another group – the non-compete clause would mean that I couldn’t stay and work there even if the hospital wanted me to stay. The way this applies to ER doctors, if your employer lost its contract with a hospital, you’d have to pick up and move to a different county. That was ridiculous. So we went to the legislature and lobbied against the bill to legalize non-compete clauses – and almost defeated those bills outright. It was very, very close. In the end, we were able to get emergency physicians exempted. Right now, non-compete clauses in physician employment contracts are legal in Tennessee – except for emergency physicians.”
Dr. Walker’s passion traces back to his early days at UTC. The Athens, TN, native arrived on campus as a member of the Brock Scholars Program – a four-year interdisciplinary program where academically gifted and motivated students pursue an education that nurtures their intellect, sense of social responsibility, and drive to lead.
“I wanted to attend a college that emphasized the classic liberal curriculum. At the time, UTC still did that. The Brock Scholars program was built around that and it came with a significant scholarship. So basically, I followed the money,” he said with a laugh.
“Back then, it was less than a decade out from being the University of Chattanooga. It still felt like a small liberal arts college. The level of instruction and personal contact made UTC unusual. The quality of the chemistry department was and still is incredible because of the money Dr. (Irvine) Grote left them. In fact, I had more chemistry hours than biology – even though I was a biology major. And the Brock Scholars program – to have a program built around the classic liberal arts curriculum and the great books tradition was a real blessing.”
Dr. Walker said the instructors who really stood out included Bob Fulton, who was a professor of English and taught the freshman Brock Scholars humanities seminar; Grayson Walker, the head of physics; Ben Gross, who was chairman of chemistry; and Tom Waddell, who taught organic chemistry.
“They were all magnificent,” he said. “But my biggest mentor by far was Bob Franke, who was chairman of biology. Not only was I a biology major, but I did a couple semesters of independent study with him. I spent a lot of time with him outside the classroom.
“I was lucky. I had a lot of great teachers at UTC. The people who were teaching were there because they loved teaching. They didn’t look at students as a burden they had to bear in order to do research. So there was a lot of contact between students and faculty in and out of the classroom.”
After his undergraduate experience at UTC, Dr. Walker attended medical school at the UT College of Medicine in Memphis, did his residency in emergency medicine at the University of Florida's Shands-Jacksonville Hospital, and worked in Gainesville,GA and Knoxville before settling in Nashville for 23 years.
Since late 2014 he has been semiretired, working half-time as a locum tenens emergency physician. When a hospital can’t fully staff its own ER, they go to a locum tenens (Latin for "place-holding") company to help find doctors to fill in the gaps. “So I work in more than one hospital now,” Dr. Walker said. “Doing that type of work, I can live anywhere I want; I’m not tied to a single hospital. That’s what led to my wife and I moving back to Chattanooga.”
Chattanooga is where his parents went to school. It’s where he and his brother went to school. It’s where his brother’s kids went to school. He considers UC and UTC as being part of his family.
“UTC helped shape my character,” said Dr. Walker, who currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the UC Foundation and on UTC’s Honors College Advisory Board. “Because I was in the Brock Scholars program, I was forced to attend things like the symphony and opera and ballet – and do things that I would not have done on my own. That was a requirement of the program. If UTC and the Brock Scholars program had not forced me to attend things like that, I would not have the appreciation for art that I do – and that has enriched my life beyond words.
“College ought to be far more than vocational training. It should be a place to indulge your curiosity and develop as a human being.”