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A Word From the President: What Does the Public See When They Look at Us?

AAMC Reporter: February/March 2016

Given the fast pace of daily life at our medical schools and teaching hospitals, every so often we need to pause to reflect upon how our work and our missions are viewed by those outside the walls of our institutions. Academic medicine is a complex and multifaceted field, but we depend on public awareness of our work and support for our missions to succeed in educating the next generation of physicians, discovering medical innovations, and providing critical patient care for all in the communities we serve.

To shed light on how the public views academic medicine, the AAMC has conducted public opinion research at regular intervals since 1996 using one of the nation’s leading research firms, Public Opinion Strategies. Our most recent study consisted of four focus groups in two major U.S. markets; a national telephone survey of 800 registered voters; a national Internet survey of 1,500 adults; and interviews with Washington, DC, health care policy leaders. The goals of the project were to assess how the public perceives medical schools and teaching hospitals and determine whether the messages we use to communicate our value resonate broadly.

Here’s the good news: The research found that the public recognizes the added value offered by our institutions. When it comes to teaching hospitals, 7 out of 10 people agree these institutions provide added benefit for patients compared with other hospitals. They believe that our institutions have the best doctors and deliver better quality and more in-depth care. As patients, they value access to medical innovation, cutting-edge technology and equipment, and the latest treatments. When asked about academic medicine more broadly, a majority recognize the unique value we bring through medical innovation and in responding to health crises.

One of the things that struck me most was the high value that respondents placed on academic medicine’s responsibility to serve our communities. The intersection of our three mission areas makes our institutions uniquely positioned to respond in moments of crisis, such as developing vaccines for life-threatening diseases like Ebola. A current example of caring for our communities during an emergency is the water crisis in Flint, Mich. The situation was first brought to light by Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint and an assistant professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, after she detected an alarming rise in lead levels in her patients’ blood. In January, Michigan State and Hurley Children’s Hospital announced a new pediatric public health initiative, led by Dr. Hanna-Attisha, to address widespread lead exposure among the children of Flint.

But the physicians and scientists at our schools and teaching hospitals address the quieter challenges that our communities face, too—the ones that do not always make the headlines. Day in and day out, our physicians are improving access to care through free clinics, telehealth, and health screenings in community spaces. Our institutions are partnering with state and local leaders to address systemic health disparities and take decisive action to improve health outcomes for entire communities. And our researchers are searching for practical solutions to our most pressing public health concerns, from emerging diseases, to substance abuse, to the effects of race and ethnicity on the patient-physician relationship.

I am gratified that the public and our elected officials recognize and value this work. However, we must pay close attention to what more they want us to do. They want us to lead care delivery system reform—to find new ways to deliver better care at lower costs. They want us to think about physician distribution, both geographically and across specialties. They want us to improve how we educate and practice in interprofessional teams. And they want us to train physicians who not only provide excellent care, but who also understand the implications of public policy on the health of their communities.

So I ask that all of us in academic medicine think about what we can do to meet these goals. I encourage leaders at each of our institutions to strengthen your relationships within your communities and with your state and local officials. I ask our physicians and administrators to evaluate whether you can improve transparency, efficiency, and cost in care delivery. I encourage our scientists to publish your results and successes broadly, to show how the research you do contributes to the health of our nation. I ask our educators to train future physicians not only to practice humanistic care for individual patients, but also to improve the health of entire communities. And I urge our students and residents to take advantage of the opportunities you have to get hands-on experience working with diverse groups in your communities through free clinics, screenings, and other outreach programs. We have broad public support for our missions. We can build on that foundation by work that brings together education, research, and care to improve population health across our entire nation.

Darrell G. Kirch, MD

Darrell G. Kirch, MD

One of the things that struck me most was the high value that respondents placed on academic medicine’s responsibility to serve our communities.

— Darrell G. Kirch, MD