Thoughts from the Dean

Medicine in an Age of Change

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May 30, 2013
Medicine in an Age of Change

The Class of 2013 will have countless frontiers of discovery

2013 Class Day remarks by Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of the Harvard University Faculty of Medicine

Members of the class of 2013, families and friends, distinguished Medical and Dental School faculty, Dr. Fineberg, and other honored guests: welcome.

At this moment, I am literally all that stands between you and your HMS degree!

In a few minutes we’ll officially launch your careers in medicine and in dentistry, in patient care, in biomedical research and in diverse leadership roles, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

For this, you have great cause to celebrate and to be optimistic. Your careers will blossom during an era in medicine and science that will be, in equal measure, both challenging and exhilarating.

Challenging because the face of health care has been rapidly transforming during your years here, and that pace of change is very likely to further accelerate.

Indeed, the way you will practice medicine over the next 10 or 20 years promises to differ greatly from what you have experienced thus far at HMS.  This results both from a fiscal necessity to rein in unsustainable costs of care, and from the need and great opportunity to increase the value and quality of the health care that we provide.

If you are like all prior HMS classes (and I’m 100 percent certain that you are), you will be both participating in and leading these changes.

Some of you will pioneer the innovative approaches for practicing collaborative, inter-professional, evidence-based medicine that a future new paradigm will likely demand.  Others will develop and deploy new technologies and systems for a future where remote sensing and digital health will be far more prominent than it is today. Others will make paradigm-shifting discoveries that will illuminate the cause of disease, and provide new approaches to treatment. And finally, many of you will do what physicians have done for centuries—work closely with your patients to help them achieve greater health.

Now how we will pay for health care’s evolution is a core issue for all of us, and for the nation. This school, and you—our newest alumni—must work to ensure that our country maintains medicine, science and service as core values in our society.

In the face of falling research funding, we must continue to be strong advocates for the critical research that we know will lead to improved care for all.

Yes, the road ahead will be demanding, but it will also present great opportunities, and you—the Class of 2013—have reason to be hopeful for the world’s future. We are at an amazing pinnacle in the history of biomedical science, in the country that leads the world in this space.

We possess remarkable human capital, as well as insights and tools that permit us to better understand physiology and disease.  And we’re rapidly gaining understanding into behavior and the mind in a way that no previous generation of humans had.

Genomic exploration is revealing unsuspected therapeutic targets in cancer.  With this approach, we now have—and will soon have many more—custom-tailored treatments for individual patients. This will hopefully lead to rationally designed disease-prevention strategies. We are working hard to transcribe and edit “molecular conversations” with the goal of interrupting the course of disease.  All this means that you will be able to ease human suffering to a degree that is wholly unprecedented.

Collaboration and technology will be a cornerstone of your success. Even now, under the rubric “One Harvard,” we’re creating alliances that we expect will lead to new diagnoses, treatments and preventions for the brain, heart and bone injuries of athletes.

We also expect to be part of an exciting interdisciplinary brain-mapping initiative designed to allow us to understand the still mysterious functions of the brain.  One day, this will likely lead to new treatments for schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism and epilepsy.

Countless other frontiers remain ahead for you to discover, whether your work involves exploring the genome, redesigning care delivery systems or traversing continents to combat cholera and tuberculosis. 

Of course, today, all health is global.  Pathogens know no borders. To squelch future epidemics, you will collaborate with health care providers in every corner of the world. On this ever-shrinking planet, your reach as caregivers will truly know no boundaries.

I hope that you will use the modern tools of medicine to wondrous ends. I also hope you will retain the idealism and passion that has inspired you to want to heal your fellow human beings.  It was that spirit which we saw on Marathon Monday, just six weeks ago in our hospitals and on our campus—the impulse to reach out and provide care in the face of unspeakable tragedy—that truly defines our vocation.

As we send you on your journeys, we are certain that you are well equipped for the undertaking ahead. You have labored long and displayed exceptional intellect and spirit.  You will contribute to the future of human health—some as empathetic healers, others as innovators; all with your hearts.  Embrace the privilege of entering the medical profession. You are surely equal to it.