In a fractured country, academic medical centers are doing ‘social repair’

Nov 13, 2016 2:30 PM

The past decade has been rough on academic medicine. 

In 2008, health systems, insurers and providers expected a sea change in the way Americans get their medical care. But the Great Recession — and perpetual fighting over the Affordable Care Act — plunged the country into uncertainty about policy and payment that no one could have predicted, says Darrell Kirch, M.D., president of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

The 2016 election has done little to clarify the situation.

“This election hurt,” Kirch told physicians gathered Sunday in Seattle. “For far too many people, this election was much less about expressions of our community aspirations. It was too much about alienation and frustration. You’re not immune. You’re not an island, an ivory tower, away from those forces.”

But, Kirch says, academic medical centers (AMCs) still perform a critical function in American health care. They are the keepers of three public goods: education, discovery and care. And the public knows that.

In pursuing those missions, says AAMC Board Chairman Bob Laskowski, M.D., the most effective tool of community healing and transformation stems from the role academic medical centers play in teaching future providers.

“All of us as teachers have the power and the responsibility through our work to transform the lives of our students. And as students, we have the power and the responsibility to transform the world,” Laskowski says.

Kirch pointed to several examples of AMCs performing “social repair” in their communities: 

  • Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine public health program are monitoring children and pregnant women who have high levels of lead in their blood resulting from the Flint water quality crisis. 
  • University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine students and faculty staff mobile clinics that serve surrounding “colonias” whose populations suffer from health disparities.
  • Several medical schools require incoming medical students to train as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) as soon as they enter school. The training, Kirch says, teaches a level of empathy that cannot be matched sitting in a lecture hall. 
  • Orlando Health and Florida Hospital, both teaching institutions, provided free care to victims of the Pulse Nightclub terrorist attack June 12.

Such projects are proof of the humanistic role academic medical centers can play in quietly building community and transforming health care — regardless of the political and economic forces that sometimes rock the country, Kirch says. 

“You are living proof that great communities and great nations do not exclude people, they include,” Kirch said. “At a time when institutions are losing trust, there is still a broad base of support for what you do as teaching hospitals and research institutions. You’re doing social repair.”

By: Rebecca Walsh

Rebecca Walsh is a Senior Writer for University of Utah Health Sciences