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Updated: November 27, 2023 / 2023 Champions of Health Care

Champions of Health Care: Ellison has led the battle against infectious disease for 40+ years

A photo of Dr. Richard Ellison PHOTO | Courtesy of UMass Memorial Health Dr. Richard Ellison, hospital epidemiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center

Dr. Richard Ellison’s career as an infectious disease investigator has spanned a handful of states over four decades, but nowhere has he made such a contribution as he has at UMass Memorial Health in Worcester, where he serves as hospital epidemiologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

Ellison has been in the infectious disease field through multiple public health crises, including tuberculosis, HIV, and COVID-19. Along with a very large public health component, addressing the crises impacts individual patients. Having that impact has always mattered to Ellison as much as the big things. Pairing the two together is what has made the decades worthwhile.

Dr. Richard Ellison bio box
Dr. Richard Ellison bio box

“I have always really loved being a caregiver. Impacting the community is what’s always made it that much more fulfilling,” Ellison said.

Ellison has spent much of his career researching how the human body fights disease, and how that knowledge can be applied to provide better care. In 1981, Ellison was a newly arrived fellow starting his career at the University of Colorado, where he worked closely with Dr. Martin Blaser, then a faculty member.

“Research is based on trust. You have to trust who you are involved with. [Ellison] has 100% integrity,” said Blaser, now director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Ellison is a member of what Blaser called a declining group of physician investigators who engage in both realms of medicine. That expertise in both areas has allowed Ellison to make connections and discoveries in what is a dynamic, ever-changing field of medicine.

“He has made great connections over the years, putting two and two together to make a story with intention,” said Blaser.

His integrity has served him well through difficult times in American and global health challenges.

Ellison has been at UMass Memorial since 1991 when he joined as an infectious disease specialist, amid the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The issue of stigmatization of disease was high and had a significant impact on the way work in the infectious disease space could be done. He has always focused on helping the community to understand diseases, he said, which in turn helps destigmatize them.

Coming to UMass Memorial was a change-point in Ellison’s career, he said, where he shifted into a leadership role and has stayed that way since. He was regularly the hospital’s spokesperson to the public throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as leading the healthcare system through the crisis with a calm demeanor, using his expertise to serve as a cause for hope.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, the issue of stigma played a much lesser role than it did in Ellison’s previous experiences with infectious disease, but COVID posed other issues. Resistance to the vaccine came as a surprise, with many actively resisting a measure to assist their individual protections as well as the overall health of the community.

Ellison has been an educator throughout his career, informing the next generation of physicians on how to tackle the ever-changing field of infectious disease medicine. It has been rewarding, he said, to see his students and mentees advance in their careers and become leaders in their own right.

Finding rewarding aspect of medicine has helped him sustain longevity in his career, Ellison said.

“You have to find a passion and really enjoy it,” Ellison said.

Though he has been at UMass Memorial for more than 30 years, Ellison’s involvement in the community has extended far beyond. He has been involved with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as a panel chair and serves on its Hospital-Acquired Infections Technical Advisory Group, as well as previously serving as the president of the Massachusetts Infectious Disease Society. He has authored or contributed to dozens of peer-reviewed papers as a relied-upon voice in the field of infectious disease.

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