Dr. Clay Johnston's vision for the new UT Dell Medical School combines innovation and partnerships, and encourages us all to make smarter choices.
Dr. Clay Johnston is encouraged by the progress of his latest project: a first-class medical school at the University of Texas.
As the University of Texas Dell Medical School rises from its construction site on the east side of campus, its dean, Dr. Clay Johnston, is not far off. He’s rushing to his next meeting, walking down five stories from his temporary office, across university grounds, and up another four flights of stairs. Along the way, he shares his vision for not only the school, the first medical campus to be built at a major university in decades, but also for Austin’s healthcare in general (his “no-elevator” approach hints at his overall philosophy).
Appointed dean in January 2014, Johnston and his colleagues aim to go beyond creating a first-class school and innovative medical center. “We’re here to change healthcare in the community,” he says—a goal that lured him to Austin from San Francisco, where he was associate vice chancellor of research at the University of California, San Francisco.
“We can think more broadly about what the health issues are for Austin and how we can best address them,” with the goal of forming a “model healthy community.” One way to do so, he explains, is as simple as encouraging healthier eating and exercise habits. Another is measuring how these changed habits—interventions, he calls them—affect lives. He believes the medical school must enable partners around the city to take on similar interventions.
Johnston knows the medical school can’t do it alone, so he is speaking at the Health and MedTech Expo in March as part of South by Southwest Interactive. “To solve the health issues, we need the same entrepreneurial spirit that’s been brought to technology for solving consumer issues,” he says.
Long the dream of many, including State Senator Kirk Watson, the school started to become a reality after voters approved a property tax increase in 2012 and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation made a $50 million investment. Last summer Austin’s Livestrong Foundation also donated $50 million to establish the Livestrong Cancer Institutes, a partnership with the medical school that’s focused on patient-centered care and innovative teaching techniques.
After a year on the job, Johnston is encouraged by the school’s progress. Faculty appointments are on schedule, and the curriculum is under review by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the national accrediting authority. Construction is moving along on a nearly $650 million medical campus and hospital; Johnston jokes that the “center of gravity” of Austin’s building activity has shifted from downtown to just west of the Erwin Center. If everything remains on schedule, 50 students will begin studies in 2016.
Johnston has carried heavy loads before. After undergraduate studies in physics at Amherst College and medical school at Harvard University, he completed his residency in neurology at UCSF and served on its faculty for 17 years while squeezing in time for a PhD in epidemiology at UC, Berkeley. He was also director of the Clinical Translational Science Institute at UCSF, a group dedicated to applying promising therapies to patient care and finding innovative approaches to healthcare. Eager to use what he learned at UT, he says, “This is a start-up; taking something from zero to something that’s worthy of the vision of the community is a different challenge.”
Dr. Robert Messing, who has known Johnston since he was a resident at UCSF, is vice provost for biomedical sciences at UT and chaired the search committee that endorsed Johnston as dean. “Academically, he was more than acceptable because the guy has published a lot of very key papers” in his specialty, the treatment of stroke, Messing says. What set Johnston apart, though, was his “totally different mind-set [focused on more] than just treating diseases.”
Johnston envisions an ecosystem—a favorite metaphor— designed “to provide better care that’s more efficient and more matched with what people really want out of the healthcare system.” Central Health, the taxpayer-supported healthcare district for Travis County, and the private Seton Healthcare Family of hospitals and clinics, which is building the teaching hospital at the medical complex, are two other major components of the ecosystem. Equally important, Johnston says, are the healthier choices we make in a grassroots effort to create and continuously fine-tune that model healthy city.
“If we want to be a smart city, what’s more important to a city than its health?” Johnston asks. That’s why he thinks it’s possible for the medical school, working with UT computer scientists, to craft the final piece of his imagined ecosystem: a vast repository of health information gathered from all the partners and big-data tools to create “a model not just for health, but for how to achieve it, because that’s really the key.”