By Christy Krueger –
There’s a lot for Tucson to hang its hat on when one of the top public research universities in the country sits smack in the middle of the city along with a world-class medical school that’s breaking barriers with cutting-edge initiatives.
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, just north of the main campus and adjacent to Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a laundry list of accomplishments that are saving lives and contributing to the advancement of medicine worldwide and to the economy here at home.
Leading the march into the next 50 years is Dr. Charles B. Cairns, a nationally recognized leader in emergency medicine and critical care who initially was hired as vice dean of the College of Medicine – Tucson in 2014 and was named permanent dean in April 2016. Cairns was lured away from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine. In his move to the UA, Cairns was part of a package deal with his equally renowned wife, Dr. Monica Kraft, now the Department of Medicine chair.
Enthusiastic about becoming part of one of the country’s top research schools, Cairns and his capable staff took no time in generating a huge win for the college.
The UA was one of four universities selected in 2016 by the National Institutes of Health for its All of Us Research Program, formally known as the Precision Medicine Initiative. The NIH selected four partnership groups, UA Health Sciences and Banner Health being one of them, to conduct studies with the goal of advancing genomic research. The award, led by Dr. Lolu Ojo, totals $43.3 million over five years and is the largest NIH peer-reviewed grant in Arizona history. It signals that the university is considered one of the nation’s top research facilities in the field of genomics, suggesting a high level of prestige and the opportunity to be instrumental in the future of medicine in the United States.
Cairns credits the 2015 affiliation agreement with Banner Health and the physical growth of the hospital and UA Health Sciences for many of the positive changes that have taken place at the college since he arrived, as well as those still to come.
“All the changes have enhanced academics and the missions of the college,” Cairns said. “They provide students with new opportunities for clinical experiences and to be at the forefront of technology. They allow the faculty to be engaged in the highest quality research and clinical care. And it allows for better interaction with the community, to serve the needs of the people in Tucson and around the nation.”
Growth and changes go beyond the Tucson campus. The Banner affiliation opens opportunities for students and faculty at any of Banner’s Phoenix-area hospitals and facilities where, incidentally, the UA operates the recently fully accredited College of Medicine – Phoenix.
To top off all the excitement around the College of Medicine – Tucson, the Arizona Board of Regents couldn’t have hired a more appropriate and qualified leader than Dr. Robert C. Robbins as the UA’s new president. Robbins happens to be a cardiac surgeon whose previous job was leading the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center in Houston. He comes with a long, highly visible background in medicine, research and large-institution leadership, including time as a professor and chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Stanford School of Medicine.
“The partnership with Banner is in its nascent stages,” Robbins said. “I thought one of the reasons the Regents chose me was my background, and that I could hopefully have a positive influence on the evolution of this partnership, which I think could be tremendous between the University of Arizona and Banner Health.
“I think we can do things together to not only to catch up to but actually lead in the discovery of new drugs, new devices, new digital platforms, new diagnostics, new ways of delivering healthcare that will be higher-quality, lower-cost, with a more patient-centered focus to service.”
Sarah Hiteman, retired deputy dean of finance and administration, who was at the college for 22 years, sees Robbins as an important part of the medical school’s future. “We now have a UA president who understands the Colleges of Medicine. It’ll be a benefit to all health sciences in Tucson and Phoenix.”
Hiteman has lasting memories of the continuous struggles with having enough funding, a dilemma that has changed over the years as the UA consistently has landed high in the rankings as a top public research university.
“One of the biggest challenges the College of Medicine faced through time was state budget cuts,” Hiteman said. “Historically, UA decided the College of Medicine would have deeper cuts because they thought the college had additional resources to tap into to reach budget, like access to hospital resources and from doing well in research. It was considered a cash cow.”
Hiteman explained that researchers basically had to generate their own income, some of which was used to pay their salaries. “It’s hard to work with $12 million in deficits. A lot of tenured faculty left to go to other institutions where they were paid 100 percent by the state and didn’t have to generate part of their own salary.”
Today, Hiteman said, the keys to success of any medical school includes research, funding and retaining faculty. “We need to take care of people to keep talent.” She points to the UA Cancer Center as being a “huge research engine; it’s very important.”
Philanthropy also is integral to the school’s funding. Much of it comes from patients who had positive experiences with the hospital and specific centers connected with the school, such as the UA Cancer Center, the UA Sarver Heart Center, the UA Steele Children’s Research Center, the UA Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center and the UA Center on Aging, among others.
The centers include College of Medicine – Tucson graduates, who contribute to the Tucson community’s economic stability while strengthening and growing the services the centers provide.
Of course, the whole purpose of a medical college is education. Its admissions office received more than 7,200 applications for 120 spots for the class of 2021, a 50-percent increase since 2014. It’s a strong indication that the university’s medical school is benefiting from an increased level of visibility and reputation as a top research institution.
“I think that when people look at a UA graduate, they know they’ve had excellent clinical training,” said Dr. Kevin Moynahan, the deputy dean for education who also oversees admissions. “They’re going to see an excellent physician, a well-rounded physician, one who has core competencies, including professional behavior and empathy. I think that’s what people see. We see that when our students are accepted for admission.”