A determined medical student approached Patrick Remington, MD ’81, MPH, now a professor emeritus of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, with an idea he was passionate about. The student wanted to start an organization to incorporate public health practices within Wisconsin schools. Remington liked the vision, but he advised not to start the organization given the demands of medical school.

The student approached two other SMPH senior leaders, who told him the same thing. Undeterred yet respectful, he formed a planning group and pursued his vision.

That student was Benjamin Weston, MD ’11, MPH ’10, FAEMS, and the resulting organization was the Healthy Classrooms Foundation, now a thriving nonprofit still run by School of Medicine and Public Health students. The drive that led him to establish the foundation hasn’t abated, and today, it undergirds a wide range of professional responsibilities that bridge clinical care and public health.

Benjamin Weston
Benjamin Weston, MD ’11, MPH ’10, FAEMS

A native of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area, Weston earned medical and master of public health degrees at the UW, where— as a first-year medical student—he met his wife, Michelle Buelow, MD ’11, MPH, who shares his passion for urban medicine and public health (see next page).

Weston next completed an emergency medicine residency at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, and an emergency medical services fellowship at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Milwaukee. Now an associate professor of emergency medicine at the MCW, Weston has a broad and diverse portfolio, including scientific publications outlining his research; article and abstract reviews for professional journals; a weekly shift in the emergency department at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital; formal and informal teaching of medical students, residents and fellows; and more.

But his public health roles are the main reasons for his high profile in the community. As director of medical services since 2019 for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, he oversees emergency medical services for 14 fire departments. In August 2021, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley named Weston the inaugural chief health policy advisor for the county, based in part on Weston’s leadership as the medical director of the Unified COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center that coordinated and managed the county’s pandemic response.

Before COVID-19 arrived in the state, Weston’s roles in emergency management focused largely on guiding and improving pre-hospital care: training and evaluating paramedics; enhancing ambulance safety; and strengthening patient care, such as shortening door-to-balloon time for heart-attack patients. He also was the director of mass-gathering and event medicine, in which he provided coordinated clinical care for big athletic contests and for unexpected events such as mass shootings.

“I think Dr. Weston is the quintessential student of medicine and public health,” says Remington. “The skills needed to be an outstanding clinician are not the same skills that are needed to be an outstanding public health professional: communications, systems thinking, policy advocacy. It’s really a rare person who exhibits skills in both areas, and I think he is an example of someone who is able to work with both ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ determinants of health.”

The emergence and spread of COVID-19 have put Weston’s range of skills to the test. Between March 2020 and July 2021, he was the principal speaker at more than 160 press conferences with public officials. Highly active on social media, he posts regularly on Twitter (@BenWWeston), combating rampant misinformation, urging patience as cases ebbed and then surged again, and stressing the importance of relying on data to make decisions about vaccination and other mitigation practices. In one recent tweet, for example, Weston described the structure of the coronavirus with a simple graphic to illustrate how the vaccines work and why they cannot induce infection. His mantra is to provide “clear, direct, honest communication” with the public to build and maintain trust as an advocate for public health in an atmosphere where outspoken community members often disparaged the value of science.

Remington thinks there may be another reason for Weston’s success.

“Dr. Weston is incredibly humble,” he says. “His ability to listen and learn from people is truly remarkable.”

While serving as the public face of Milwaukee County’s pandemic response, Weston used techniques that had proven to improve the care he and his teams provided in the emergency department. He led the creation of the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard early in the pandemic to track cases, hospitalizations, deaths and other data to inform the public and shape decision-making. The dashboard was one of the first in the nation to report race and ethnicity data and, in doing so, highlight COVID-19’s disparate impacts on communities of color. When information on those disparities is captured through a focus on equity, the collected data reflect what health care practitioners see in the clinical setting daily.

“The emergency department is still the hospital’s ‘front door,’” he says. “In those encounters in the ED, you can see the social determinants of health in individual patients.”

His work on COVID-19 contributed to his long list of awards, as he received the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s Pandemic Hero Award in late 2021. Weston continues to keep up a bruising pace as COVID-19 news and guidance frequently change and the public has grown weary of the pandemic. He is tired of the pandemic, too, but what keeps him going is the work that remains.

“We don’t yet have enough folks vaccinated; we still have a strained health care system; and we continue to see significant inequity in health care access and health outcomes in our community,” he notes. “I am excited for what more we can do in the future, well beyond the pandemic, to improve the health of our community.”

By Lisa Brunette
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.