Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Texas Medical Center

I just returned from a visit to Houston with Governor Lincoln Chafee and the Mayor of Providence, Angel Taveras. The Governor invited President Ruth Simmons of Brown University and me to accompany him and the Mayor to visit the Texas Medical Center, which is one of the world’s foremost centers for patient care and medical research. The Texas Medical Center is composed of 49 institutions, including 21 academic institutions, six nursing schools, three medical schools, and two schools of pharmacy. Further, the Texas Medical Center encompasses 33.8 million (!) gross square feet of patient care, education, and research space, employs over 93,000 people, and teaches over 71,000 students. The annual research expenditures are approximately $1.8 billion. In short, as they might say there, it is truly a “Texas-sized” organization.

So why visit? What could be learned from meeting with administrators, researchers, and others in Houston that would be helpful to Rhode Island? As it turns out – a lot. I was very impressed by the enthusiasm for, and commitment to, service – the focus on helping people was always foremost. It seems to me that such a spirit is also common among Rhode Islanders.

Here are some other key findings that are directly relevant to the University of Rhode Island and our missions of advancing education and research and contributing to the economic renewal of our state.

First, the synergy of co-locating academic institutions and programs with hospitals and health care agencies or organizations is dramatic. That has been my experience (on a much different scale) and, to me, this is an opportunity for which Rhode Island is well positioned. Education, research, patient care, and job creation are all significantly enhanced by simple proximity, and further magnified by collaboration. Collaboration and partnerships are critical to success – we already know that here – but the results can be even more dramatic than many in Rhode Island might think. It’s clear from the Texas Medical Center example that the concept of bringing the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to the “Knowledge District” in Providence, where the Brown University Medical School and multiple health care providers are located, is potentially transformative. In fact, we should consider a presence for health-related programs in addition to nursing. Also, as we have experienced so powerfully at URI, the integration of teaching and research that can occur when faculty, students, and research staff can readily interact enhances both education and innovative scholarship.

There’s more. We heard how shared, multi-use facilities can benefit education, research, and patient care; building more such facilities appears to be a priority for the Texas Medical Center and I think this would be a productive and cost-effective strategy for Rhode Island as well. And, according to figures provided by the Texas Medical Center, the economic impact of the Center has been substantial – estimated at $14 billion for the region, and the creation of over 121,000 jobs in addition to the employees of the Center itself.

I think we can build on our current success, and the solid foundation that exists here, to create the “Rhode Island Medical Center” (a phrase first used by Governor Chafee in our discussions, if I recall correctly). It will be scaled to Rhode Island, of course, but I believe its impact would also be substantial and lasting. We can learn from the examples of Houston and elsewhere, and take advantage of our size, to move ahead quickly, to the benefit of all Rhode Islanders. I think that, as in Texas, success will require a sustained effort by many people and institutions working together. I’m confident that the University of Rhode Island is ready to do its part.