Spotlight on Leaders in Emergency Medicine: David K. Wagner, MD FAAEM

Originally Published: Common Sense, May/June 2007 
Original Author:
Daniel Nishijima, MD

David Wagner, MD
David K. Wagner, MD FAAEM

David K. Wagner is one of the biggest contributors to emergency medicine since its inception. Dr. Wagner played a lead role in the establishment of the American Board of Emergency Medicine and has been one of the greatest supporters of AAEM over the years. I had the wonderful pleasure to sit down and interview Dr. Wagner at the 2007 AAEM Scientific Assembly in Las Vegas. It was an amazing experience to speak to this very warm and humble physician who has been working in the emergency department for 41 years. In the hour we spoke, it was a pleasure to see numerous former residents and
colleagues stop by and exhibit obvious respect and affection for Dr. Wagner.

DN: How did you enjoy this year’s Scientific Assembly?
Dr. Wagner: I loved it. I try to go the SA every year and the change over the years is dramatic. The quality of presentations this year is very impressive. You can tell that the physicians that came out here are not just out here to play the slots; they have a lot of energy and are excited to learn from some really great speakers.

DN: What are you doing currently?
Dr. Wagner:Although I have recently stepped down as chair of the department of emergency medicine I am still very active as a professor at Drexel University College of Medicine. I still do 1-2 shifts a week in the emergency department. I also work with Drexel medical students 1-2 days a week in the Problem Based Learning track facilitating clinical scenarios. I also teach Medical Ethics courses with the medical school. I truly enjoy working with residents and medical students as they are very knowledgeable, and not just in medicine.

DN:You have been in emergency medicine from its inception. What are the biggest changes over the years?
Dr. Wagner: I think one of the most important changes that I’ve seen is the level of respect that our field has gained over the years. In the very beginning there was very little respect for emergency medicine among the different fields and there was very little belief that emergency medicine would amount to much or even last. However over time emergency medicine has become a cornerstone of health care.

This due respect has occurred because of credible residencies that have gotten better and better over the years as emergency medicine is getting more and more competitive and we attract better and better medical students. The residents have gotten better each year.

The second big area of change is that emergency medicine has emerged as a critical organ in health care and a legitimate area of specialization. I think our colleagues from different health fields have finally developed a mutual respect for emergency medicine.

DN: What are some of the problems facing emergency medicine today?
Dr. Wagner: There are many problems facing health care in the United States as a whole, such as the growing number of uninsured, the overcrowding of the emergency department, and the limited access to health care for many. The US spends the most per capita in health care yet is has some of the least favorable outcomes in developed countries around the world. The problems facing health care in this country involve all fields and emergency medicine is big enough to be at the table of decision makers in directing the health care field in this country. We must remember that emergency medicine is a specialty that grew out of the demands of our patients rather than out of the demands of the physician and that we must continue to put the patient’s best interest at the forefront.

DN: Why are you involved with AAEM?
Dr. Wagner: While ACEP focuses on practice management and SAEM focuses on academic emergency medicine, AAEM I think focuses on the best of those two areas. For example AAEM has a more structured and stringent approach to practice management. There is definitely room for all three organizations and all three are prospering. I definitely think that the goals and principles of AAEM appeal to residents. AAEM realizes that residents are the future of emergency medicine and I think residents see this.

DN: As someone who has had a long and prosperous career what type of advice would you give to residents starting out their careers?
Dr. Wagner: First of all there isn’t a single path for everyone. You need to look within and see what you want and how to get there. If someone told me what I’d be doing with my career as an intern I’d say they were crazy. There have been so many zigs and zags in my career that have been unexpected. I’d recommend to keep an open mind, follow your vision, and don’t be afraid to take some zigs and zags. A lot of it is serendipity and luck but if you construct your goals around being a quality physician first and foremost and enjoy what you do you will be fine.