Harvard Medicine

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Listening in on medical education

Work in Progress

I had the opportunity to interview my mother before she died earlier this year at age 95. When I asked her what made her most proud, she answered, without hesitation, “It’s a medical family.” She was referring not only to me, but to my wife, Terry; my daughters, Sarah and Lydia; my brother, Steven; and his daughter, Emily.

My mom was right. We are a medical family. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, there were no doctors in the family before me. I grew up in the Bronx, New York. My mother was a junior high school mathematics teacher, and my father was a businessman and former World War II pilot.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, I had two ideas about what I might choose for a career. I had a deep interest in public affairs. When I was elected “mayor” of my elementary school, I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed studying current events and world affairs. A huge admirer of John F. Kennedy, I was devastated when he was assassinated.

My other passion was the world of science and medicine. I admired several of the doctors I met while growing up. I saw the profession of medicine as a way to unite biological science, which I loved, with more humanistic concerns. I was 16 when I entered the City College of New York and, ultimately, decided that a career in medicine would be the most sustaining and rewarding for me.

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 45 years since I made that decision. When I reflect on what my mother said, I can’t help but think about what’s made me most proud over the years. And what stands out are the people I’ve worked with. This has especially been true at HMS, where I have had the pleasure of serving as dean for the past eight years.

Last fall, we launched The World Is Waiting: The Campaign for Harvard Medicine. This $750 million fundraising initiative is all about people. More specifically, it’s about helping people live longer, healthier lives. The campaign is already having a transformative effect on our mission to alleviate human suffering caused by disease through investments in education, discovery, service, and leadership.

In the area of education, our focus is on training the next generation of leaders in science and medicine. We are proud to be one of the only top-tier medical schools that still adheres to a need-blind admissions policy. This means that an applicant’s ability to pay tuition is not factored into our decision about who will be accepted. We also cover the full demonstrated financial need for each accepted student. Last year, 75 percent of students received need-based aid.

Our goal is to raise scholarship funds so that we can uphold our twin values of need-blind admissions and need-based aid. Thanks to generous donors—the majority of whom are HMS alumni and exemplars of our mission in action—we have established sixty-five student aid funds since the prelaunch phase of the campaign began in 2012. We have also raised significant funds to help renovate the Tosteson Medical Education Center so it may better support Pathways, the redesigned curriculum; provide a sophisticated learning environment; and prepare the medical leaders of tomorrow.

In the area of discovery, our aim is to create research collaborations that will help illuminate the cause of disease and advance lifesaving cures. One of our biggest success stories has been the Harvard Program in Therapeutic Science (HiTS). Established in 2013 with philanthropic support, the goal of the program is to rethink the basic and clinical science needed to discover, develop, and deliver better drugs.

In less than two years, HiTS has grown from one employee to eighty-six; opened its flagship Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology; secured $40 million in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Energy; and conducted fundamentally new science with faculty, fellows, and students from five partner institutions: MIT, Tufts, and HMS affiliates Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Gifts from campaign donors have also enabled us to establish ten Quad-based professorships, spanning the fields of education, genetics, global health, health care policy, immunology, neuroscience, and stem cell research. We also established twenty-three affiliate-based professorships, a joint program in translational neuroscience and neuroengineering with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and new centers focused on immunologic diseases with Brigham and Women’s, paralysis with Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and, across all affiliates, cancer research with the Ludwig Center.

Our service initiatives focus on building health equity and transforming health systems in the United States and throughout the world by expanding the work of our global health, health care policy, and primary care teams. Gifts from an anonymous donor helped launch our Center for Primary Care in 2012. By partnering with twenty-eight HMS-affiliated adult and pediatric primary care sites in the Boston area, the center is helping to create team-based care models that work to improve the health of our communities by transforming primary care practice and education. The center now touches the lives of nearly 300,000 patients.

Housed within the Department of Health Care Policy, the new Health Care Markets and Regulation Lab is working to provide policymakers and industry leaders with the scientific evidence and analytical tools necessary to create a fiscally sustainable, high-quality health care system. Our new HMS Center for Global Health Delivery–Dubai is working to increase local and regional health delivery research capacity in the Middle East and the surrounding region. HMS also is co-chairing the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, which recently published a report that more than doubled previous estimates of the unmet need for surgical care worldwide.

Last, but not least, gifts earmarked for leadership are critical to continuing our more than 230 years of innovation. These gifts provide flexible funds that can be used when and where they are needed most. Some of the initiatives to which I have applied these funds include helping launch HiTS, establishing the Department of Biomedical Informatics, supporting the redesign of our student facilities, and launching our new external education initiatives.

There is no question that this campaign is already having a tangible impact. But our work is not yet done. You don’t have to be a doctor or be from a medical family to make an impact on the future of health care. An investment in HMS leverages our biggest strength: human capital. 

Jeffrey S. Flier is dean of the faculty of medicine at Harvard University.

Photo: John Soares