Dean John J. Reilly, Jr., MD, highlighted some of the CU School of Medicine’s accomplishments over the past five years and outlined key initiatives moving forward in his annual State of the School address on January 13. He also spoke to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reilly noted that 2020 was a year of profound change due to the pandemic, particularly in health care, but said he is extraordinarily proud of the way the School of Medicine and its clinical partners have responded to the challenge.
“We take care of a large volume of patients with COVID — some of the sickest patients with COVID — with excellent outcomes,” he said.
In addition to providing care for patients, Reilly commended faculty members for their involvement in testing new therapies for COVID and in the vaccine trials, particularly the Moderna trial. He also said CU’s clinical partners have done an outstanding job in rolling out vaccinations.
Some of the ways the school has sought to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on faculty and staff include providing access to Cares.com for connection to resources and back-up childcare, extending the tenure clock for faculty, and enhancing behavioral support services through the Department of Psychiatry.
"Our challenge as a group and as a school is to preserve some of that nimbleness and speed without having to be in the middle of a crisis."
Reilly said one of the main lessons the school has learned as a result of the pandemic is that while not all work or education can be done effectively from home, more can be accomplished remotely than previously was assumed.
The pandemic tested the school’s ability to adapt how faculty provide care to patients. For example, telehealth visits went from zero at the start of 2020 to more than 40,000 visits a month in April, “faster than people thought was possible.” And while Reilly acknowledged that some clinical trials were inevitably delayed, faculty were able to start clinical trials related to COVID in under 10 days.
"Our challenge as a group and as a school is to preserve some of that nimbleness and speed without having to be in the middle of a crisis,” he said.
Before looking back at other highlights of 2020, Reilly offered a retrospective of some of the school’s key accomplishments during his five-and-a-half-year tenure as Dean. He started with what he called the school’s most important asset: talent.
During the past five years, the school has appointed four senior associate deans and six department chairs. Overall, School of Medicine faculty numbers increased from close to 3,000 in 2016 to nearly 4,000 in 2020. In addition, the school is approaching 1,200 trainees in various residency and fellowship programs and enrolls around 55 graduate students a year.
“We clearly need to continue our efforts to recruit and advance the careers of people who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine.”
Applications to the MD program have grown exponentially, with the applicant pool reaching 14,100 in 2020. This represents a 35 percent increase over 2019 applications, outpacing the national growth of 20 percent, and a 100 percent increase over the past five years, compared to a 25 percent to 30 percent increase nationwide.
A key goal of the school is to increase diversity on campus. To this end, the school has been able to increase scholarship funding to promote diversity. Currently, 25 percent to 30 percent of incoming students identify with one or more groups underrepresented in medicine. On the faculty side, the number of Hispanic and Black faculty members has increased substantially, although Reilly noted that more needs to be done to increase representation among faculty and leadership.
“We clearly need to continue our efforts to recruit and advance the careers of people who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine,” he said.
In terms of promoting women, the school has closed the gap at the professor and associate professor level over last five years, and nine of the school’s 23 department chairs are women.
Infrastructure was another focus over the last five years. The school received multiple infrastructure grants, including renewals for the Comprehensive Cancer Center Support Grant, the Clinical and Translational Science Award, the Colorado Area Health Education Center, and the Nutrition and Obesity Research Center, in addition to a new award for a Diabetes Research Center.
The school also continues to support junior investigators through K Awards and Training Grant Awards at a time when some academic medical centers are phasing them out.
Reilly said these efforts around recruitment, infrastructure support, and the nurturing young investigators have translated into success in the competitive world of peer-reviewed extramural funding. Federal funding for the school grew 50 percent over the past five years, and the school has added 25 endowed chairs. These successes have contributed to an increase in the overall endowment to the School of Medicine, from $324 million in fiscal year 2016 to $579 million in fiscal year 2021.
Finally, Reilly offered an update on the Aurora Health Commons Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a joint venture between the CU School of Medicine and Salud Family Health Centers to develop a 27-acre health care campus in Aurora. In addition to serving the approximately 48,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in the area who do not currently have access to primary care providers, the Commons will offer interdisciplinary training programs for general internal medicine and family medicine residencies and will serve as a site of rotation for Anschutz medical students. The school has committed to a five-year, $25 million investment in the project.
Looking Back at 2020
Despite the wrench COVID-19 threw into day-to-day operations, Reilly reported that the school was still able to meet most of the goals laid out in last year’s State of the School address.
- Opening the temporary location of the Aurora FQHC with Salud Family Health Centers.
- Launching CU faculty-initiated in-human clinical trials of cell-based immunotherapy. So far, four patients have been treated, and researchers anticipate enrolling the first pediatric patient in the trial in next month or two.
- Activating the expansion of the north campus of Children's Hospital Colorado in Broomfield, the new UCHealth Cherry Creek Medical Center, and the new UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.
- Continuing construction of Anschutz Health Sciences building.
- Starting to build a data science and informatics program.
- Finishing the new curriculum and advancing the collaboration with Colorado State University to open a branch campus in Fort Collins.
- Continuing to recruit talent.
Looking Forward to 2021
Many of the school’s 2020 goals provided the foundation for this year’s goals.
One of the top priorities is to continue building the new data science and informatics program. Reilly said he is committed to establishing a new department devoted to the program on or before July 1, 2022, which he said is vital to attract top talent in the field.
Another goal is opening the new Anschutz Health Sciences building. The school is on track to begin moving into the building in August, with full or near-full occupancy in late October or early November. The building 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, a clinical research program associated with the Clinical and Translational Science Awards Institute, the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine, and the new data science and informatics programs.
The school will continue its progress in partnership with Salud Family Health Centers to open the Aurora Community Health Commons, which Reilly said will take several years.
The new TREK curriculum for medical students will debut with the incoming class of 2025 this summer, marking a total commitment to the longitudinal integrated curriculum model.
"It is our hope that this will be a catalyst for helping us erase disparities in health care in our community and across our country."
The school also plans to move the supervision and administration of PhD programs back into the School of Medicine. With this change, the school is committed to increasing the number of graduate students incrementally over the next few years from 55 students a year to about 75.
Reilly also put into focus his priority to create a Center for Health Equity that would be eventually located at the Aurora Community Health Commons.
“The time has come to better organize and formalize our efforts around health equity,” Reilly said. “It is our hope that this will be a catalyst for helping us erase disparities in health care in our community and across our country.”
However, the school’s first aim for 2021 is to get everyone vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible. This will depend on supply and the school’s role in addressing vaccine hesitancy among some people.
Reilly closed by again thanking the School of Medicine faculty and staff for their “extraordinary performance during an extraordinary year.”
“To rise to the challenge of COVID and still accomplish all the goals we set out for ourselves a year ago is, I think, a very impressive accomplishment. So I want to thank you for all your efforts,” he said.