Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Internal Medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School
To James G. Dixon, good medicine is – at its heart – about listening skills and empathy.
Over a long and influential career at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Dr. Dixon has never stopped listening and learning, whether from colleagues at EVMS and Sentara Healthcare, medical students or the many underserved patients he treats through community outreach programs.
“You have to spend the time to really understand the person in front of you,” he says. “You will also rely on science and technology, of course, but you need to hear about a patient’s history and life and what that person values. That’s what gives you an opportunity to make an enormous difference.”
While maintaining a large primary care practice at EVMS, Dr. Dixon has founded a training program, developed innovative classes, held important leadership positions, nurtured joint initiatives with Sentara and garnered numerous awards as a physician and professor. Thanks to his interest in women’s health, he also joins with a colleague, Dr. Jennifer Ryal, and EVMS internal medicine residents in the “Every Woman’s Life” preventive care program for low-income patients.
An ability to adapt over time has shaped Dr. Dixon’s career. In 1995, amidst a push for community-based medical schools to train more primary care physicians, he founded a combined Family Medicine/Internal Medicine Residency Program that he would direct for 23 years. The initiative caught the attention of talented residents from around the country.
“We attracted adventurous, motivated students who wanted to tackle a challenging and experimental program,” Dr. Dixon notes. The combined program ends this year, due to a complex mix of funding issues and diverging training paths for the two specialties.
In response, Dr. Dixon re-embraced an earlier focus on women’s health, hoping to again contribute to the EVMS curriculum. Last year, he implemented an elective for fourth-year medical students to delve into recent research on breast cancer risk, heart disease, hormone replacement, osteoporosis and other important issues. Two students were in the first class; six have signed up for next year’s edition.
“Professionally, that class was the best thing I did all year,” Dr. Dixon reports. “These two bright young women shared so much with me about what they’ve observed and learned.” His students and residents continuously push him to become a better physician, he adds: “They challenge me. They give me energy. They make it much easier to stay up at night reading up on a variety of topics.”
Reaching low-income patients is another passion for Dr. Dixon, whether they’re hospitalized or part of outpatient initiatives such as Every Woman’s Life. That program, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides free breast and cervical screening tests.
Concern for the vulnerable came early to Dr. Dixon. Although the Hampton native earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, he believes the seed for his medical career was planted at age 12 when an older sister, then 16, was diagnosed with serious depression. She struggled with mental illness for much of her life before passing away several years ago.
Dr. Dixon and his oldest sister – who became a wound care nurse – watched during their teenage years as doctors and hospitals fought to help their sibling, while learning the devastating effect a disease could have on a patient and a family. “She was the most talented of all of us,” he says. “I gained a lot of perspective and compassion.”
Even as an engineering student, Dr. Dixon made time to volunteer at nearby hospitals, including a stint on the female-dominated “Pink Lady” team at Riverside Regional Medical Center. “They didn’t make me wear a pink dress, but my badge did have a fair amount of pink in it,” he laughs.
Once he pivoted full-time to medicine, Dr. Dixon completed his medical degree at EVMS and an internship and residency in family medicine at Riverside. He then spent two years practicing with Eastern Shore Rural Health in Northampton County to fulfill an obligation to the National Health Service Corps and repay his student loans. The center served people from all walks of life and income levels; one favorite patient was a 90-year-old woman whose father had been born a slave.
Dr. Dixon returned to EVMS for good in 1986, completing an internal medicine residency before beginning his teaching career. “During training I flirted with a few specialties, but I always pictured myself as a primary care provider,” he recalls. Ever since, he has mentored hundreds of learners in hospital and ambulatory settings – many now practicing clinicians in Hampton Roads – while serving on and chairing multiple high-profile committees.
Additionally, Dr. Dixon has held several leadership posts at Sentara Norfolk General, where he is a longtime staff member. He served a term as Medical Staff President, remains on the hospital’s Peer Review Committee and regularly bolsters collaborations between the hospital and EVMS.
Outside work, Dr. Dixon most enjoys family time with his wife Marybeth, a gynecologist, their two children and his rescue Labrador retriever, Tahoe. He also likes to mess around on his old guitar, read history books and attempt to stay healthy with elliptical machine workouts.
As for the future of primary care medicine, Dr. Dixon is optimistic. He predicts a computer-savvy generation of doctors will improve technology – including cumbersome electronic medical record systems – so they can focus more on delivering value-based care.
“This is such a rewarding field,” he says. “No matter what else changes, that’s never going to change.”