Something big is happening right off of Interstate 35, just north of downtown Austin. In November 2012, Travis County paved the way for the development of a university medical school by voting to raise property tax revenue to support healthcare initiatives for Central Texas. This proposition included $35 million annually for the medical school. After additional funding from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Dell Medical School has started to take shape in the southeast corner of the University of Texas, Austin’s main campus.
What is now a vast dig site, dotted with tower cranes and replete with barricades, will soon be a hub for innovation, scholarship, and community involvement. In preparation for first class of 50 students at this nascent institution (scheduled to commence summer of 2016), Dr. Maninder Kahlon, the Vice Dean for Partnerships & Strategy, is carefully crafting early priorities and vision to give the Dell Medical School a distinct voice in the arena of healthcare policy and practice.
As a new player in the field of established medical training programs, Dr. Kahlon says the Dell Medical School is positioning itself to stand apart in two distinguishable ways. First, the school will make connections between academic medicine and the surrounding community to improve health outcomes. In doing so, it will create a model that’s scaleable to the nation and hopefully to the world. “You will never find another medical school who says, ‘Our primary goal is improving health in our immediate area,’” Kahlon says. “UCSF doesn’t say that. Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Harvard… none of them say that.” Kahlon takes the medical school’s responsibility to the taxpayers who funded the institution very seriously.
“The medical school will seed initiatives and provide a framework for innovation so that everyone in Austin and Travis county can plug in and participate in creating this model healthy city,” Kahlon says. According to Kahlon, a model healthy city is one in which partners from public and private sectors, as well as city government, collaborate in an ecosystem to create initiatives for wellness and health care that directly and positively benefit the community.
The Dell Medical School will also tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of the local Austin community, a start-up hub, to encourage participation and growth. “The spirit is coming up with an idea, believing that something can be done, and putting rigor into testing the ideas. We want to see this spirit amongst every player – not just physicians or nurses but social workers, people who design grocery stores, and others in the community,” Kahlon says.
Second, the Dell Medical School will focus on creating value beyond cost. The costs of the American healthcare system are extremely high and steadily increasing, which presents a significant problem for future innovation, Kahlon says. “We pay twice as much as the second in line for healthcare and our outcomes really don’t match up.”
This problem of the value of care beyond cost involves addressing the value that academic medicine can provide to students and the community, too. Traditionally, medical schools are funded through the profits of their associated medical centers, but this can present some oppositional issues. For example, if a medical school wants to investigate reducing excessive scanning, they might run into opposition because scanning brings in profits for the associated medical center’s radiology departments. Kahlon’s goal is that UT Austin’s medical school be a place untied from these bureaucratic restraints – a place where students and professors alike can ask tough questions. This will hopefully be encouraged through community partnerships.
“As we address health here [in Central Texas], we don’t want to address it in a ‘one off’ way by doing some philanthropy or getting money to create more services. That’s just not sustainable. Instead, what we want to do is look for ways to incentivize entrepreneurs and their good ideas, provide a rigorous system for vetting those ideas, and bringing in third party funders who have skin in the game,” Kahlon says.
By leveraging these community partnerships, Kahlon believes that the Dell Medical School could develop a robust ecosystem allowing for quality-enhancing, cost-lowering initiatives. In doing this, she believes that they’ll create a self-sustaining model where the extra funds will come back into the system and create more innovative services and ideas. While other medical schools and health systems around the country may be looking into similar business models, the Dell Medical School at UT Austin will truly be the first in the nation to do this on a city-and county-wide scale.
Austin is a new player in the healthcare innovation scene, so one challenge will be identifying areas where the Dell Medical School could provide momentum in the community, quickly jump-starting the transformation of the innovation environment.
“We desire to work with our partners, not only by bringing in expertise, but by also being humble in the face of what our partners have already done,” Kahlon says. “We know that by working together effectively, we can become more than the sum of our parts in the effort to make healthcare more available to everyone in the community.”
Below, watch Dean Johnston discuss his vision for UT Austin’s disruptive and innovative medical program:
Kijana Knight-Torres is the Principal User Experience Researcher at projekt202. projekt202 is an Austin-born software design and development agency that focuses on creating optimal user experiences for clients and end users. Knight-Torres has a B.S. in Computer Science from Rice University and a M.S. in Information Studies from the University of Texas iSchool. She is passionate about helping others find solutions to their own problems and building empathy through effective communication. Besides work, she enjoys photography, music, and cooking and traveling with her husband.
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