September 20, 2011
This impressive group will focus on achieving, over the next 10 years, these 10 transformative and interlocking goals:
1. Build a medical school.
After 20 minutes of talking about a medical school, I guess you could say this is the most obvious one.
The University of Texas System has already committed to expanding medical education and research in Austin. President Powers just last week pointed to all that the University of Texas currently adds to the community’s assets. And I think speaking for the community, he said, “We do need to continue to push forward to bring all this together in a medical school.”
Now let me say here that a medical school is far more than some square – probably beige – building with the words “medical school” written on the side of it. Yeah, there will be an education building, designed for the specific purpose of teaching medical students.
But a medical school also means the specific creation of a four-year medical degree and includes housing for students, joint post-graduate programs developed with UT Austin and UT Southwestern, and the recruitment of professors and specialty doctors who can teach at UT and at the medical school, and also treat people in the community.
2. Build a modern teaching hospital.
The truth is that between the University Medical Center at Brackenridge, our private facilities, including St. David’s facilities, and the Healthcare District, Austin has a lot of significant hospital resources. But none of them was designed specifically to train 21st Century doctors.
In the University Medical Center at Brackenridge, we have a facility that’s geographically close to UT, but also that’s aging fast by hospital standards and is on the edge of needing serious renovations or replacement. And that’s before we consider what it would take to build a place where students can learn how to be doctors.
A modern teaching hospital will be state of the art, allowing students to learn and Central Texans to heal in entirely new ways. It will provide patient-centric care with larger rooms to allow for family discussions and involvement, and to accommodate a multidisciplinary healthcare team. And it will foster integration of education, research, and clinical missions, setting the groundwork for advancing healthcare, developing new therapies and curing disease.
It’s time to figure out where, and how, to build a teaching hospital that will rise with the medical school.
3. Establish modern, uniquely Austin health clinics.
We rightly take pride in the fact that our community is generally a physically healthy one. But whether it’s the tens of thousands of uninsured Central Texans or the constant need for better preventative care, we’re far from perfect. The future, in terms of both providing medical education and better healthcare, is to connect a medical school and teaching hospital’s resources with the broader community.
A medical school and teaching hospital will increase our capacity and let us redesign how we care for our neighbors who can’t afford health insurance – while also, at the very same time, improving everyone’s health and healthcare. And it’ll allow us to integrate a medical school’s residents, doctors and other providers into our homes, neighborhoods and community health clinics so future doctors and nurses can work with and learn from real people – valuable experience that benefits them and helps patients be healthy.
Our goal will be to create modern, multi-specialty facilities where patients can get diagnoses, treatment and care before they need to go to the emergency room, as well as specialty and mental health care that isn’t available to them now. This will better serve clients, and help reduce both societal costs and healthcare costs.
4. Develop a Research Institute and laboratories for public and private research.
Just as clinics are essential to this effort of keeping the community healthy, research will be our bedrock for economic development and healthcare advancements.
Part of the challenge will be to engage researchers at our universities and in the private sector. So we need a research institute where academic research will wrap into clinical needs, producing products and therapies that can be tested and honed in healthcare settings.
The seeds of such an entity have already been planted through the collaboration of Seton, UT Southwestern, and the UT System. The executive director for the Seton-UT Southwestern Research Institute in Austin has been selected, and funding’s been committed for the first 20 clinician scholars.
Laboratories, where discoveries can be made, developed and commercialized, will be essential to this endeavor. Private businesses also need space for research and development near the smart, creative scientists and doctors who will enhance existing products or come up with new ones.
We know that right now, today, there’s a shortage of so-called “wet labs” for bioscience research. We already need more space, and we’ll require even more as we grow our healthcare economy.
5. Launch a new commercialization incubator.
The University of Texas has had real success in working with researchers and entrepreneurs to turn scientific discoveries into products and companies that help the region’s overall economy.
Three years ago, UT’s Austin Technology Incubator created an entity to support life-sciences discovery. It currently has five companies, all based in Austin but developing their products elsewhere in Texas or other states due to our lack of resources in Austin.
And officials are already looking to open another facility, a facility known as a commercialization incubator, that will help turn innovations and discoveries into products and new therapies. Wherever possible, this effort should plug into research on- and off-campus, as well as work going on in the medical school, teaching hospital and multi-specialty clinics.
6. Start a comprehensive cancer treatment center.
Austin and Texas have admirably taken to the front lines in the fight against cancer. Austin is home to groups such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Texas branch of the American Cancer Society. And Texas voters in 2007 approved $3 billion in bonds to fund cancer research through what’s known as C-PRIT, the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. As we develop our resources, we will look for ways to create a comprehensive treatment center where people can receive both the medical treatment and guidance they need to fight this beast of a disease.
7. Provide needed psychiatric care and facilities.
The average wait time for an uninsured person to get basic, state-funded help is five months. For intensive treatment, it’s four months. Such a long waiting list for people in so much need is shocking, tragic and unacceptable.
We need services that make house calls and work with patients who don’t keep appointments. And preventative services designed specifically around adolescent suicide. We need crisis centers, and a psychiatric ER.
We can’t pretend that we’re addressing our healthcare issues if the region continues to avoid this problem.
8. Improve basic infrastructure, and create a sense of place.
I’ve said that this is a transformative opportunity.
That means we’ll actually transform–physically change. We need to plan on the front end for the streets, water lines and other basic infrastructure around new facilities.
But there’s opportunity beyond just updating such things. Obviously, the area around the current University Medical Center at Brackenridge could change if we renovate it to become a modern teaching hospital. That area of downtown has fantastic potential for becoming a uniquely Austin place of meaning – and healing – with Waterloo Park and all of the aspirations for Waller Creek.
Plus, it’s location so near I-35 creates the opportunity for this area to be planned in a way that allows old barriers to be torn down, and communities that have been wrongly split – whether by accidents of geography or mistakes of history – to be connected.
9. Bolster the medical examiner’s office.
Well, we’ve talked about helping folks stay healthy and alive. Let’s talk about what we do with some of them when they’re dead.
Our Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office is already stretched beyond its resources. If, as part of this effort, we can locate the medical examiner’s department near the medical school, it would help students and doctors for decades. Because, the fact is, autopsies are essential to medical education. And Travis County performs autopsies for 42 counties besides our own, for an average of 1,500 a year.
But teaching represents just a fraction of what we can do by integrating the medical examiner into a medical school campus. Clinicians at a university hospital could get real-time feedback on trauma and other fatal cases. And they could be more active in hospital morbidity and mortality conferences, providing better feedback and education to clinicians.
10. Solve the funding puzzle.
Oh, right. We may need to talk about money. I’ve saved this most joyful of topics for last.
Basic funding has been a stumbling block to building a medical school for all of these decades. Luckily, the picture looks much better than it has in the past.
Several different entities are involved in the conversation. In addition, we should all thank Chancellor Cigarroa for his declaration last month that expanding medical education – both here and, appropriately, in South Texas – will be among the UT System’s top priorities. That creates a lot of momentum for addressing this issue.
Financing a medical school and teaching hospital is a wise investment in the community. It will require a public-private partnership that includes philanthropy and the support of entities such as the Seton Healthcare Family.
Getting there will be a challenge. And I’ll tell you now, the solution will not come at the start of this process. We will work diligently to be as realistic as possible about what we’ll need, and to be as conservative as possible in figuring out what it will cost.
But let’s not literally jump to conclusions. We have work to do even before we can properly and adequately sketch out these funding issues, let alone the resolution to them. Part of the reason we’re here today – declaring it’s time to organize and set real goals – is that, until now, there’s been no clear context or overriding program – no large-scale effort to win community support or to plot the long, complex path that’s always essential with a financial, economic and lifestyle investment like this.
But this time is different. I and so many others believe that this time, we’ll meet the challenge of making this investment, in part because we all know the inheritance it could create for Austin, Travis County, Central Texas—really all of Texas. By one estimate, this investment in a medical school, teaching hospital and health science center could ultimately translate into roughly 15,000 permanent jobs, and close to $2 billion in economic activity.