Physician/Lawyer Follows His Own “Go For It” Advice

One Friday last month, Edwin Olsen, M.D., J.D., MBA, professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences, spent the morning at the Medical Wellness Center learning basic Tai Chi moves he’ll teach older adults to improve their balance and avoid falls.

Then, sweaty and facing a pending grant deadline for the Miami Area Geriatric Education Center (MAGEC), which he established in 1988 to provide continuing geriatric education for health care professionals across South Florida, Olsen rushed off to shop for the kick-off party he was hosting that night for the new Medical Student Pathway in Health Law.

Two years after “retiring” from the Miami VA Heathcare System, where he last served as associate chief of staff for Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Olsen is still immersed in new endeavors, a proclivity that started when he launched a shoe shine business at age seven and, arguably, reached its zenith 48 years later when he decided he’d apply to UM’s School of Law himself while dropping off his son’s application.

Father attended law school at night, and son David, then 25, went days. Both graduated cum laude in 2000 and though neither practices law today, the senior Olsen, now approaching 70 and still a researcher with the Center on Aging, says his legal training has made him a better physician.

“You learn new listening and reasoning skills,” he says. “And a more holistic way of looking at complex problems, which many patients have.”

It also made him an obvious choice to serve as one of four volunteer directors of the new Health Law Pathway, one of the Miller School’s areas of scholarly interest that evolved from the Medical-Legal Partnership the Health and Elder Law Clinic at UM’s School of Law established to help patients at the VA and elsewhere secure benefits, or tackle complex legal-medical issues. Rounding out the foursome is another of the Miller School’s M.D./J.D.s, Panagiota “Pat” Caralis, professor of medicine, and two of the Health and Elder Law Clinic’s attorneys, JoNel Newman and Melissa Swain.

A couple of the seven pathway students, who will be paired with law students to assess and manage legal-medical cases they encounter during their clinical experiences, have expressed interest, though apprehensively, in the six-year joint M.D./J.D. degree the University just launched.

Olsen’s advice: “Go for it.”

“I’d do it again,” says the 1968 Ohio State University medical grad who first returned to college in 1995 for his MBA. “It was a lot of fun.”

An Air Force brat who was uprooted almost every two years, the Berkeley undergrad whose academic endeavors also took him to George Washington University, Georgetown University, UCLA and Harvard, always followed that advice. He jokes that his multiple moves and mild attention deficit disorder resulted in his love of launching new projects, many of which have had an enduring impact.

In 1978, he developed the VA’s first Hospice/Palliative Care Program at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, formerly known as Wadsworth. He also helped found the National Hospice Organization, serving as president, while helping to secure federal reimbursement for hospice services.

Lured to the Miller School in 1987 from the VA’s central office in Washington, he played a central role in establishing the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry, the geriatric psychiatry fellowship, the Memory Disorders Clinic, the medical student rotation in geriatrics and the VA’s Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center (GRECC). He also served as principal investigator on two national cooperative studies to integrate mental health services into geriatric care and, in 1988, established MAGEC. Twenty-four years later, the training consortium is still going strong with Olsen still serving as its director and principal investigator. Two years ago, MAGEC was awarded a five-year cooperative agreement with the Health Services Resource Administration, the primary federal agency for education and training to improve health care services for uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable people, including veterans.

That didn’t interfere with Olsen adding “Tai Chi trainer” to his resumé. But he has no plans to add any more initials after his name – except for the ones his four grandchildren bestowed. “They call me ‘G.P.,’” he says. “For Grand Pa.’’

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