Thoughts from the Dean

Collaboration and the Future of Medicine

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May 29, 2014
Collaboration and the Future of Medicine

A spirit of partnership may be the greatest gift for the HMS Class of 2014

Hello and good afternoon to you, the Class of 2014. It gives me great pleasure each year to welcome your families, your friends, and each and every person who joins us here today to bear witness to your remarkable achievement and to celebrate this transformational and joyful day with you.

Not too many years ago, when you began your training as medical students, you gathered together in what is now a traditional ceremony in our profession, to receive your white coats.

I imagine it was a proud day for you.  You were all excited as you donned the traditional symbol of the profession you had chosen to enter—a short white coat.

Many animated conversations took place among you as you first came to know one another. And on that day, you began to coalesce as a class.

In this manner, you continued a ritual, a tradition, practiced by the members of the 223 HMS classes that preceded yours. You began to shape a community, your own unique community, of physicians and colleagues.

It is a community that we hope and expect will forever provide you with professional support, and, if you are as fortunate as I have been in this regard, many close personal friendships.

Let me speak a bit more about the importance of community.

The members of the first HMS class certainly knew its value. John Fleet and George Holmes Hall—yes, there were only two graduates of the first HMS class!—these two brave souls sought out each other for support and opinion after they graduated. They wrote letters to one another.  Their letters are in the Countway Library. And if you want permission to go look at them, I can arrange it!

They wrote to each other about their patients and their patients’ illnesses and they described how they elected to treat them, and how the “good effect of the medicines,” of which there were virtually none in 1783, could serve as a guide for treating others.

Now, it will be increasingly unlikely that any of you will literally put pen to paper in this digital age, but you have and surely will continue to communicate as Fleet and Hall did. But you will be emailing and texting one another, and tweeting, skyping and instagramming to each other and the world—following, where appropriate,  HIPAA-described protocols, of course!

Now I’m going to take one moment to do something just to show what kind of a guy I am. I’m going to take a picture of your class which, shortly after this, I’m going to tweet to my followers @jflier. So if you could just wave at the camera!

[Dean Flier pauses to take a photo of the graduates with his phone.]

And someone gave me the great idea to actually take a selfie.

[Dean Flier takes a selfie with the graduating class.]

I was brave to do that, I think!

So in these new age communications, and in other formats not yet developed or even imagined, you will ask questions, you’ll make observations, and, if you are like so many HMS alumni preceding you, you will present new ideas and discoveries that will advance medical science and medical care.

In the lab and in the clinic, you will conduct investigations large and small, from clinical studies designed to tease out new factors associated with obesity, cancer, or behavioral illnesses; to basic-science studies that focus on the molecular bases of a drug’s action; the role of inflammation in illness, or the ways that stem cells could be directed to regenerate tissue damaged by trauma or disease.

And most likely, you will carry out this research with others. You will collaborate.

The spirit of collaboration and partnership, and the vital role it plays in maintaining HMS as a leader in medical research and education, has been a significant part of the culture during your years here.

The School has established new and exciting collaborations that will inform your chosen profession—and influence how you will practice medicine in the future.

These collaborations might yield a new treatment for Crohn’s disease and other immune-mediated diseases.

They may give expression to clinical innovations to improve care delivery in primary care practices.

Or they might lead to the discovery of novel antibiotics to stem the action of pathogens that will be threatening populations worldwide. 

They might lead to the identification of new and sorely needed treatments for currently intractable psychiatric or increasingly prevalent neurodegenerative diseases.

You and your patients will be the beneficiaries of whatever discoveries come from these collaborations.

I know this spirit of community, of collegial and professional support, is not new to you.

In addition to having had several years to get to know one another, and to appreciate the joys and challenges of being a medical student at HMS, your class has shared a signal event that allowed you to experience the pride—and pain—that comes with being a doctor within a community of doctors.

I refer, now, to the tragic events of April 15, 2013. You were rising fourth years, completing your rotations in the hospitals, when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred. Wherever you were, however you participated, most of you were affected.

In the days and weeks that followed, you gave one another support, helping classmates put the experience in perspective, and taking the opportunity to look anew at why you chose medicine as your life’s work.

You saw what helping people meant. You learned what teamwork meant. And you understood what you and your classmates meant to one another.

This will likely be a defining moment for many in your class. In the years to come, when you gather together to mark the decades that have passed since this graduation, you may recall what you did, and how, in that moment of history, your commitment to your profession, and your solidarity with your classmates, was tested—and found to be rock solid.

You are not only joining a magnificent profession; you also are joining a fellowship that spans centuries, one that has translated— and continues to translate—discoveries made at the bedside, in the clinic, and in the laboratory, in ways that have improved how humans are cared for—and how well they live.

I urge you to embrace this legacy with all the determination that brought you to Harvard Medical School a few short  years ago. Practice medicine with intelligence and compassion. Ask questions. Find answers. Bring joy to your profession—and to your patients.

Four, five, or a few more years ago, you put on your white coats. After today, most of you will continue to wear white coats. These coats will be different, however. For one thing, they will be longer! But they will now have your name emblazoned on the pocket.

Your name, followed by two letters: “MD.”

Those letters should be a source of great pride. They should also be a cause for humility, for you will now be responsible for the well-being of your fellow human beings. You, as this School’s mission attests, are now part of a community known for new ideas and new leadership, each in the service of alleviating suffering and disease.

This responsibility, this membership in the HMS community, may seem daunting, but it really shouldn’t. You have been well trained for this role. You are prepared. And you can always draw support from each other, from this School, and from the generations of proud HMS alumni upon whose sturdy shoulders you stand.

HMS graduates have a deep tradition of amazing accomplishments. I, and our entire faculty, look forward to being astonished by yours.

Congratulations to each of you. Welcome to the profession! Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: your diplomas!