Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Colorado School of Medicine still had many accomplishments to celebrate in 2021.
That was the message from Dean John J. Reilly Jr., MD, in his annual State of the School address on January 12.
Among those accomplishments were getting faculty and staff vaccinated against the coronavirus; continuing to build the school’s informatics and data science capacity with the creation of a new department this summer; moving programs into the recently completed Anschutz Health Sciences Building this spring; launching a new curriculum for the medical student Class of 2025; and opening a branch campus at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The CU School of Medicine also saw a record number of applications in 2021. More than 14,000 candidates from around the world applied for one of just 184 seats in the class of 2025, a 35% jump from the previous year, compared to an increase of 18% nationwide.
The school also welcomed two new department chairs — Vineet Chopra, MD, MSc, in the Department of Medicine, and Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, in the Department of Family Medicine — and honored distinguished professors Judy Regensteiner, PhD, co-founder and director of the Ludeman Family Center for Women’s Health Research, and David Schwartz, MD, former chair of the Department of Medicine, who was recognized for his leadership roles as well as his research contributions in pulmonary fibrosis and lung disease.
The School of Medicine reaffirmed its commitment to supporting its community in 2021, receiving designations as a Hispanic-serving and age-friendly institution, further developing plans to open a community health commons in the city of Aurora, and continuing to serve the Medicaid population in Colorado.
“About 23% of the population in Colorado is on Medicaid, as we’re a Medicaid expansion state, and roughly 50% of children in Colorado are on Medicaid,” Reilly said. “It’s a sizable and very important part of our population, and I’m proud of the efforts that we’ve made to expand access for them.”
Other initiatives Reilly called out in his address include the Connections Program for High-Risk Infants and Families, which provides screenings, consults, and other medical services for women with high-risk pregnancies and families with medically complex children; and ECHO Colorado (Extension for Community Health Outcomes in Colorado), a statewide professional education initiative aimed at connecting health workforces to experts to increase access to specialty care and expert knowledge.
“Many participants across the state of Colorado identified it as an important source of information for keeping up to date with the changes on therapeutic and diagnostic options related to the COVID pandemic,” Reilly said of ECHO Colorado.
Reilly also praised the CU Medicine Dermatology Clinic in Aurora, which has a particular focus on patients of color and is the only site in Colorado that offers electrolysis services for transgender patients who are Medicaid beneficiaries.
“I think it is emblematic of our commitment to expand access to underserved populations in the city in which our campus resides,” Reilly said of the clinic.
Burnout and isolation
Despite hopes that 2021 would provide a respite from the pandemic, Reilly said, faculty in the School of Medicine were busier than ever, with a record number of patients. Telehealth volume increased as a result, as did rates of stress and burnout among doctors and others in the health care workforce. Among the factors contributing to high rates of fatigue, burnout, and depression, he said, are increased workload due to full hospitals; a changed dynamic with patients, due largely to the toll placed on the system by the unvaccinated; and dealing with the growing challenges young children face due to social isolation.
“You have likely seen the public declaration by Jena Hausmann, the CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado, that pediatric mental health is now at a state of public health emergency,” he said. “On many days in the Children’s Hospital emergency room, the leading diagnosis of the children and adolescents in the emergency room is suicidal ideation. This is a substantial qualitative change in the landscape.”
Social isolation is taking its toll on faculty and staff members as well, Reilly said, and while “we’ve learned over the past few years that much of what we can do in person can also can be done remotely, it’s also highlighted the fact that the informal interactions we have with people in the workplace are a source of creativity, a source of professional satisfaction, and enable us to get work done more efficiently.”
Reilly expressed his hopes that faculty and staff will be back on campus working together in the near future, and said the school is close to filling a newly created position: senior associate dean for faculty development.
“That person will also have the title of chief wellness officer, and we will work to stand up programs that not only provide our faculty with leadership development, but also produce meaningful improvement in the workplace to improve their overall wellness,” he said.
Looking forward to the next year
Reilly said other goals for 2022 include concluding active chair searches going on for the departments of radiology, dermatology, pharmacology, and physiology and biophysics; cleaning out laboratory buildings to get rid of outdated equipment; improve the efficiency of clinical practices; and opening the new Anschutz Health Sciences Building, which will house the school’s behavioral health program, the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center, the Department of Psychiatry, the National Mental Health Innovation Center, clinical research activities of the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine, ACCORDS (Adult & Child Consortium for Health Outcomes Research & Delivery Science), and the new data science and informatics programs.
The COVID factor
While the School of Medicine had many accomplishments in 2021 despite the pandemic, Reilly acknowledged that COVID-19 dominated the time and attention of faculty and staff members over the past year. He praised faculty members and UCHealth for its efforts during the pandemic.
“Our faculty have provided outstanding care during COVID. If you were in Colorado, and you got sick with COVID, you wanted to be in UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital,” he said. “There are multiple examples of people driving by other hospitals to bring their loved ones to University Hospital because of the widely held perception that the care our faculty and our partners at UCHealth provided has been outstanding, and the data support that.
“It’s a source of pride that we’ve been able to partner with UCHealth in the greater Denver metro area in the response to this pandemic,” Reilly continued, “and I think everybody at UCHealth should be extremely proud of the job they’ve done during the pandemic.”