by Dana Martin
Elizabeth Phelan, M.D., M.S., wears a number of hats at the University of Washington. She is an acting assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. She’s also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Health Services, School of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is director of the Fall Prevention Clinic at Harborview Medical Center (HMC), which she established in 2005. She is co-director of the RAND/Hartford Center for Interdisciplinary Geriatric Health Care Research. Last but not least, she is associate director of the Health Promotion Research Center.
Her work in the area of geriatric research has not gone unnoticed. She is a recipient of the Paul Beeson Physician Faculty Scholars in Aging Research Program Award (2003) for research to improve primary care for older adults. She also received the Pfizer/AGS Foundation for Health in Aging Postdoctoral Fellowship Award for Research on Health Outcomes in Geriatrics (2000).
Dr. Phelan is interested in preventing functional decline in older adults and in how health care systems can help adults maintain their function. Her work includes looking at ways to improve primary care for older adults, health promotion and disability prevention in older adults, and linking health care systems and communities to promote the health of elders.
From her long list of accomplishments, you might never guess Phelan studied French as an undergraduate student, in addition to completing her pre-med requirements.
She says that even then, in the back of her mind, she was thinking about a career in medicine, although she seriously considered becoming a French professor at one point, especially after spending her junior year studying and living in France.
After returning from France, Dr. Phelan began working at the Human Nutrition Research Center, with the goal of being admitted to their Ph.D. program in the School of Nutrition. While working there, Dr. Phelan realized she wanted to make the decisions about what questions to ask and what direction research should take, so she decided to pursue her degree in medicine after all.
“I realized the person who was really making the decision about where the research was going to go in the lab was the M.D.”
After receiving her degree in medicine, Dr. Phelan completed her residency training in internal medicine at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. She was a chief resident at Chapel Hill from 1995 to 1996 along with her now husband. They moved to Seattle together in 1996, and she became a fellow in the RWJ Clinical Scholars Program at the University of Washington from 1996 to1998. As part of her clinical work during that fellowship, she realized how much she enjoyed working with older patients, at which point she decided to pursue fellowship training in geriatric medicine. She was a fellow in the Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine from 1998 to 2000 and has been a faculty member of the division ever since.
Coming at clinical care with a passion for prevention and healthful nutrition, Dr. Phelan was very interested in preventive-care issues in her patients. She realized there really wasn’t a strong evidence base for many preventive care issues for older people. “It seemed like a great research opportunity, and I liked the patients, so a career in academic geriatric medicine all fit together for me,” she says.
When she is not working, she practices yoga and spends time with her husband, Derek Stirewalt, a bone marrow transplant specialist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and her Old English Sheepdog, Wilson.