J. Richard Walker III, MD, MS, FACEP, has been named chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He is also the founder and director for the Emergency Medicine Residency program at UTHSC.
A 2005 graduate of the UTHSC College of Medicine, Dr. Walker has served as the interim chair of the Emergency Medicine Department since 2016, as well as the program director for the Emergency Medicine Residency at UTHSC since its founding in 2013.
Dr. Walker is board certified in emergency medicine and in undersea and hyperbaric medicine.
He graduated from Rhodes College in 1996 with a degree in biology, earned a master’s degree in molecular and cell biology from the University of Memphis, and later completed the NASA Space Medicine clerkship in the Department of Flight Surgery at Johnson Space Center in Houston, working on medical emergencies encountered during space walks.
After his internship, he completed a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Alabama, where he served as chief resident, and then trained in undersea medicine through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Diving Medical Course, while completing a fellowship at Duke University in undersea and hyperbaric medicine.
Following the fellowship at Duke, Dr. Walker returned to UTHSC and set up the first Emergency Medicine Residency program for the College of Medicine in Memphis. He led the installation of residents at Methodist University Hospital, and later at the Elvis Presley Trauma Center at Regional One Health, one of the busiest Level 1 trauma centers in the United States. The residency program has expanded to Baptist Memorial Health Care, giving UTHSC’s Department of Emergency Medicine the capacity to coordinate mass casualty, disaster, and pandemic overflow across major academic hospital systems in the area.
Dr. Walker has served at the forefront of the UTHSC and local response to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, he set up training for the Department of Emergency Medicine and the UTHSC Division of Critical Care at Methodist University Hospital, ensuring that all emergency medicine residents and critical care fellows had appropriate personal protective equipment training specific to this threat.
As the chief of service for emergency medicine for the Regional One Health and Methodist Healthcare systems, he developed policy and redesigned patient flow for COVID patients for the systems, which together had more than 350,000 total emergency department visits in 2020. This planning ensured that not a single physician shift went uncovered during the pandemic
Because of his experience with mass casualty care, oxygen delivery systems, and prior experience designing a response to the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Dr. Walker was tapped to serve as the chief executive officer and medical team leader for the alternate-care hospital for COVID-19 patients that was set up in Memphis. The hospital was never used, however, Dr. Walker was charged with logistics and planning in the event it was needed.
When the regional trauma system’s capacity was exceeded later in the pandemic, he worked with emergency medicine, EMS, and trauma colleagues to redesign the EMS overflow trauma system to coordinate among all hospital systems in the area to ensure timely care for all patients. Additionally, he formed a council of area emergency department directors in conjunction with city officials and Memphis Fire EMS officials to address regional patient access and ambulance availability. In this capacity, Dr. Walker led regional emergency department directors in advising the city and county COVID Task Force leaders of the impending exhaustion of area hospital beds and recommended a mask mandate, which helped prevent the need for mass casualty measures in the area during the August 2021 COVID-19 wave.
As chair, Dr. Walker said he hopes to expand the UTHSC Emergency Medicine Department with emergency medicine subspecialty training, which would increase the department’s ability to better serve the university, the city and county, and surrounding areas.
“I started off with the mission of training the area’s first true emergency medicine-trained and board-eligible physicians to improve emergency care in the western portion of Tennessee and the region,” Dr. Walker said. “I never imagined that we would grow to the point that we could offer these additional leadership services to the area, as well as subspecialty training in key areas of emergency medicine, such as pre-hospital care (EMS), disaster medicine, and critical care. The continuation of this mission has tangible benefits to all the citizens of the Mid-South.”
“On behalf of the UTHSC College of Medicine, we are delighted that Dr. Walker has accepted our offer to chair the Department of Emergency Medicine,” said Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine. “Dr. Walker is a gifted physician, a talented educator, and a wonderful administrator. Indeed, using all these skill sets, he has helped guide our community through the pandemic and continues to do so.”