May 01, 2014

Commence with leadership

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On May 18, more than 160 medical students – and their families – will be able to take a collective sigh of relief at the School of Medicine’s commencement ceremony. Finally, they’re going to become doctors.

Commencement marks years of dreams coming true. Many of the graduates have fought since high school to attain their medical degree, and there have been many times they weren’t sure if they were going to get in – or get out.

For me, medical school commencement marked not only the culmination of my dreams, but also my family’s. Those around me had shared and lived the dreams vicariously, wondering if I would make it, hoping I would, and waiting for the day when I would graduate. They figured if I got through medical school, I could make it through anything else.

This year, students and their guests have the opportunity to hear words of wisdom from a featured speaker who is a pioneer in research and health policy in the United States: Dr. John Ruffin, the recently retired director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. John has also been a close personal friend and treasured mentor of mine for many years.

I met John when I was a junior in high school, eager to soak up as much about science as I possibly could. John was an associate professor of biology at Alabama A&M, and he mentored me on a science project on aquaculture. He afforded me the opportunity to conduct my first science project, in 1977, and his influence continues today. By shaping the national landscape for minority health disparities research, he enabled Dr. Jim Shikany, Dr. Mona Fouad and me to compete for the National Transdisciplinary Collaborative Center for African-American Men’s Health, which was awarded a $13.5 million grant last year.  

At commencement, I expect John to challenge the graduates to be bold in their goals, just as he has done. He was born in Louisiana, the oldest of 13 children. After college at Dillard he earned his Ph.D. from Kansas State and did postdoc work at Harvard. About the time I went off to college in Baltimore, John joined the faculty at North Carolina Central University in Durham, where he led the biology department and eventually became dean.

In 1990, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, established the Office of Minority Programs at the NIH; John was named its director. The Office became the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, then the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, with John leading each step of the way with his innovative and forthright leadership.

With his vast experience at the nation’s leading research agency, John will be able to make graduates keenly aware of the changing healthcare landscape. As the person most responsible for creating the field of minority health disparities research, he can tell them with authority that health disparities can be addressed only if physicians choose to engage and be part of solutions.

These are important messages because America is a changing landscape. It is becoming much more culturally and racially diverse. If our graduates are going to serve successfully as physicians, they’re going to have to commit to serve in a new cultural model of America.

The environment for physicians is also changing. Today, nearly 70 percent of physicians are in some form of employment relationship. In order to affect positive, progressive change in health care, tomorrow’s physicians will need to become leaders in local and regional healthcare systems as well as being successful individual practitioners.

UAB students will be well equipped. The student-run Equal Access Birmingham, which offers free health care, is a great example of their attitudes toward the city of Birmingham and where physicians need to channel their resources. The students’ willingness to provide health care for those who are underserved is a measure of their character and the character of our medical school’s leaders.

Finally, commencement is an important time for the entire School of Medicine to recognize the special nature of medical school graduation, and all the hard work of everyone involved – students, faculty and staff.  Join me in congratulating each of the graduates and their families and loved ones. Dreams are coming true, and we are all responsible, just as we will all benefit from a well-educated class of physicians.