Rally call: Leaders in academic medicine encouraged to become trailblazers in era of health care reform

Health care as an industry has found itself at a pivotal “moment of truth” and leaders in academic medicine must step up to the plate to help find solutions during a challenging era of transformation, the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges said on Saturday.

Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., addressed a packed auditorium of doctors, researchers and educators gathered for the organization’s 2013 annual meeting. The theme of the meeting, “The Change Imperative,” will pose a host of questions for participants in attendance who represent 141 accredited U.S. and 17 accredited Canadian medical schools as well as 400 major teaching hospitals and health systems, 

Kirch outlined many obstacles facing academic medicine today, including mounting tuition and debt for students entering the profession; health care spending that outpaces the rest of the world with questionable outcomes at times; the decline of grant possibilities for young scientists hopeful to make a career out of research; and the stress for clinical practices to adjust to a new model of health care emerging as a result of the Affordable Care Act.  Massive changes come at a time when health care is a hot button political issue, as the recent government shutdown and painful cuts as a result of sequestration have shown, Kirch said.

He implored leaders in academic medicine to be a positive force of change to help the country’s health care system move forward.

“What do we do when there are challenges like this in academic medicine?  The natural tendency is to look for someone else to blame,” said Kirch, describing the current health care climate and its myriad challenges. “Congress presents a great and tempting target … (but) I believe the ball is in our court. We have to take on the responsibility to take decisive action. For medicine as a profession, for each and every one of you that supports the development of medicine, this is our moment of truth.”

He noted that academic medicine’s amazing contributions are often in the spotlight during times of tragedy, when doctors and students respond with care during tornados, hurricanes or acts of terrorism.  But leaders’ voices need to be visible during quieter times as well, leading conversations about the importance of diversity and navigating options for how to improve the quality and cost efficiency of health care.

In addition to Kirch, Valerie N. Williams, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Faculty Development at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, also encouraged leaders in academic medicine to embrace change.

Williams, chairwoman of the AAMC Board of Directors, used the metaphor of dance to characterize the many options of implementing changes in health care environments.  Different patterns of dance throughout history have changed, and different styles of dance require different skills, she noted. Like different dance moves, leaders need to try different tactics to find success in the changing health care world.

“Mastering a dance of change will require trust, shared determination and commitment, practice, and the ability to grasp between playing it safe and learning new steps.  We need to polish our own skills and understanding at what this new dance really is, “ said Williams. “The need for change will continue within our health care system. Our question is, are we ready, and are we willing?”

Lorris Betz, M.D., Ph.D., moderated the panel featuring Kirch and Williams. Betz is chairman-elect of the AAMC board of Directors and Senior Vice President Emeritus of University of Utah Health Sciences. Betz highlighted the need for leadership in a political economy of uncertainty around health care.

“More than ever, strong bold leadership and thoughtful strategic action are imperative for our move forward,” said Betz.

By: by Melinda Rogers

Melinda Rogers is a communications specialist at the University of Utah Health Sciences Office of Public Affairs. She will be reporting live at the AAMC 2013 annual meeting. Follow her on Twitter @mrogers_utah.