A Q&A with JAY L. HESS, MD, PHD, MHSA, the 10th dean of Indiana University School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the United States.
You’re now concluding your fifth year as dean. Looking ahead, where is the school headed?
We have a great deal of important work to do to improve health in Indiana in areas like infant mortality, smoking reduction, mental health and the problem of opioid addiction. We have articulated very specific goals for health in this state. As part of our strategic plan we are developing not just the metrics, but strategies for how we are going to engage with partners in communities. It’s going to involve not just clinical work, but education and research.
In terms of our research programs, we are going to continue our focus on being national leaders in select areas where we have the expertise to improve outcomes for some of the most challenging diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease. I see us continuing to be at the forefront of neurodegenerative diseases. We will continue to grow our research in cancer and translation of discoveries in cancer, particularly in the areas of genomic medicine and immunotherapy.
In education, we have some exciting opportunities to take full advantage of our regional campus structure. One of the ideas that is emerging from our strategic plan is that each campus will identify an area of excellence and fully develop that. For example, perhaps it will be engineering on the West Lafayette campus, rural medicine in Terre Haute, and an expansion of laboratory research at the Bloomington campus.
We are increasingly looking at education and asking: How do we define student success and how do we maximize it? One example of the types of changes we’re thinking about is tailoring medical school more depending on what area a student is pursuing. We could potentially have more credentials and an honors project that would involve students deeply exploring an area, working with faculty and learning from them in new ways.
You’ve put a lot of emphasis on student wellness. The school is dedicating significant resources to expanding wellness programs, and you have a team of people working in this area. Tell me about that.
I think we have a moral imperative to make sure that our students are learning in a nurturing environment that builds resiliency rather than tears it down. I’m concerned about anxiety and mental health. I’m concerned about burnout. These are problems across our profession, not just at IU.
We can implement initiatives like our new curriculum, simulation, research experiences and a credentialing program, but if we fundamentally don’t have students who are happy, who are able to manage stress, and who are developing skills they need to manage a challenging career for the rest of their lives, we’re not going to get to the other things.
In my travels to all nine campuses, it’s a theme that comes up a lot. Students are anxious. They are worried about debt. It’s a high-risk occupation. I think they also struggle with career choice.
Even after getting into medical school, there are still many, many decisions you have to make about what type of career you want to have. What type of medicine do you want to go into? I want to make sure students are making decisions for the right reasons so they can have meaningful careers, and that they base their decisions on good information from people they know.
It’s a challenging area because it’s very broad in terms of all the different ways to approach the issue. But I would say the well-being of our students is one of the fundamental factors for success and is one of my greatest concerns.
We have more than 20,000 living alumni. How can they become more involved in the life of the school?
Of course, we greatly appreciate our volunteer clinical faculty. Their work with our students is extraordinarily important. We are also very interested in tapping our alumni to help students with career advice. If you’re an otolaryngologist, talk to students about what a career in the field is like and what lessons you learned along the way. We now have a formal way for alumni to do that through our Mentor and Advising Program.
We are also very big on the idea of building community. We host Alumni Social events throughout the state, and we hope alumni will come, mingle with our students and be a source of informal encouragement.
Down the road, we would like to have a robust mechanism for surveying alumni. It’s hard to know when you graduate, “Was I well prepared?” You have to go through residency or the next stage and then look back and say, “These were things in medical school that were very valuable and useful. Do more of that. I wasn’t as well prepared in these areas. Here are some of the things that would have been helpful.” And then we can tune up the curriculum.
Looking back on your time as dean so far, what do you see as the school’s most significant accomplishments?
In education, I would say developing and implementing one curriculum across all the campuses and advancing a culture of us being one medical school with the state as our campus. It’s a very important way of looking at the school, and fully taking advantage of all that it can offer.
On the research front, the strategy of identifying areas of priority, recruiting the right leaders and investing in teams has been very successful. Our research funding is up 40 percent over the last four years, and our NIH ranking has improved from 41st to 33rd during that time, which is really quite remarkable.
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we’ve also been very successful with philanthropy. That’s critical for our future. You need the right plan and you need the right people. However, you also need the fuel. So far during the Bicentennial Campaign, we have established 83 new chairs and professorships and 76 new endowed scholarships. That will make us a stronger institution that is better able to weather the challenges that lie ahead, and continue to advance our missions.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I think I’ve always been energized by the success of other people. Whether it’s a graduate student in my lab who gets a great job or a faculty member who makes some important breakthrough, there’s a vicarious pleasure in the success of the collective.
What do you wish people knew about IU School of Medicine?
We have a tremendous amount of talent and a significant amount of resources here that many people aren’t aware of. This is a medical school that has treated over 200,000 people for HIV infection in Africa. This is the school of medicine that invented echocardiography and the electronic medical record. And cured testicular cancer. And is a pioneer in regional campuses for medical education.
This school is a remarkable place in many ways—its tremendous reach across the state, its size, the number of campuses. It touches so many lives. We should be proud of our accomplishments, and we should be confident about the future.