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Meeting of the InterHealth Professional Alliance

Sept. 30, 2014
McGlothlin Medical Education Center

There is a small town on the remote border between Kazakhstan and Russia called Ridder. It is strikingly beautiful, perched half a mile up in the Altai Mountains, the so-called “Golden Mountains of Asia.”

It is rich with natural deposits of gold, silver and lead, and has been a mining capital of Central Asia since the 1790s. This one small town produced half of the lead that the Russian Army used during World War II.

While Ridder, Kazakhstan, is beautiful and interesting, it is also a long way from Richmond, Virginia.

Which is to say that Lyubov Slascheva has come a long way in her life: born in this rocky village 23 years ago next month; immigrating with her family at age 5 to western Virginia, knowing no English; finishing high school in two years and graduating as valediction at age 16; earning her bachelor’s degree in 30 months; then enrolling in VCU’s School of Dentistry when most students her age were at the prom.

Some of you might know the story of how Lyubov decided to study dentistry. When she was 16, her father needed to see a dentist. He spoke only Russian, and so he asked his daughter to accompany him on the appointment and help translate.

And in the end, her father had a great appointment, but Lyubov had a greater calling.

She began shadowing that dentist, learning everything she could. She volunteered at a local free clinic and traveled to Lithuania, Honduras and Peru to help patients in need. A prestigious scholarship from the National Health Service Corps enabled her to come to VCU, where she continues to do remarkable things.

She conducts community education workshops, she founded the Special Care Interest Group and she serves as a teaching assistant to undergraduate students at VCU — who, by the way, are about her age. Of course, Lyubov has also led the IHPA with distinction, and this is a wonderful organization that all of us at VCU are proud of.

Lyubov will graduate next year. And she has committed herself to practicing dentistry in underserved communities, a full circle in a life that began in a remote mining town across the globe.

Lyubov once said, and I quote: “Early in my immigrant life, I realized that I may never completely assimilate into my surroundings. So I found it necessary to choose between being inferior or being extraordinary.”

Lyubov, thank you for choosing to be extraordinary.

You know, Lyubov is a wonderful example about what happens when you start small but dream big, invest in education and use what you discover to make a difference in the lives of others.

It is exactly what the IHPA — and in a larger sense, VCU itself — is really all about: aligning your passion with opportunity so that you can help advance the human experience around the world.

A few months ago, I met with some of you in a room over at the Larrick Center, and I left that meeting with a deep appreciation for the difference that all of you are making — not only at VCU, but in the communities we serve.

I appreciate the chance to join you again this afternoon to thank you for the remarkable things that you do and to think about ways that all of us at VCU might follow your example of working together to solve some really big problems in our world.

When I came to VCU, I asked our leadership team to help develop a strategic plan that would shape the future of our university, and allow us to take our place as one of America’s most premier public research universities.

We needed to focus on a few priorities that would advance our mission, and one of them was an inexorable commitment to human health. We saw this commitment embraced almost immediately, and not just in one or two places, and not just here on the medical campus, but all over VCU, and in some very unique ways.

For example, our top-ranked School of the Arts has become a strong partner with our School of Medicine, in projects ranging from how physicians interact with patients to how plastic surgeons reimagine the human body. Our School of Education — ranked in the Top 20 nationally — is helping to rethink the medical education curriculum. Faculty from our School of Social Work — one of the Top 15 in the nation — join with our physicians, nurses, therapists, nutritionists and pharmacists to help ensure that our patients have the most complete care, even after they’ve left our hospitals.

Our School of Engineering shares research expertise and research space with the schools of Medicine and Dentistry, and with the Massey Cancer Center. Our College of Humanities and Sciences, including disciplines like biology, chemistry, mathematics and even mass communications, is helping discover cures and promote healthy living.

Not long ago, I had lunch with a student named Komal Dhir, who is a finance major on the pre-med track. It’s an unusual pairing until you hear her story: Komal is an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to help physicians learn the business side of running their own practice.

There are countless stories of people coming together across disciplines to advance our shared commitment to human health. In fact, it has become a hallmark of our university that people use what they desire not to advance their careers but to advance the human condition.

Now, as we move forward together, how do we expand our commitment to collaboration?

Well, the IHPA serves as one model. Your work with Kroger pharmacies is an exceptional example of service. Some of the people who visit you at their local Kroger will see no other health care practitioners during the year, so you provide blood pressure screenings, oral hygiene education, healthy food tours and more — all at no cost to them. They learn to live better lives; you learn to work as a cohesive and compassionate medical team.

So how can we make this bigger than the aisles of one grocery store?

I ask you to think about how you might leverage the diversity of talent around you — including among your fellow students on both campuses, and in some ways that may not be obvious — to tackle head-on the problems that people face in managing their health.

We are fortunate to live in a nation that has the best health care in the world. Our hospitals are unrivaled anywhere, including VCU Medical Center, which is again the No. 1-ranked hospital in the Richmond region.

But we also recognize that “health care” isn’t the same as “health” and that too many Americans wind up in hospitals with conditions that they could often prevent.

So how can you, the next generation of health care providers and policymakers, work with the future scientists, engineers, statisticians, artists, educators and journalists who are your fellow VCU students to focus on the things that my generation has not addressed?

How can we work together to change health care in America?

There is no question that health care is remarkably different than it used to be. And so the way that we think about health care — from systems to practice to workforce — has to change, too. We have to work together in creative and effective ways.

I’m proud that VCU is at the forefront of interprofessional education in the health sciences. We are among the very few research universities with all five health sciences schools on campus, and we’re in even more select company when you consider the remarkable breadth of our institution more broadly. I know of no other university that has both a top-ranked school of the arts and a top-ranked hospital, and where you find them working together.

We are also among the few institutions with a center dedicated to advancing interprofessional health care. Alan Dow does a great job with this, and I’m grateful.

The value of these partnerships is that they inspire the new ways of thinking that we need. Students — especially those from outside of the health sciences — come into a partnership and say, “Why do we do it this way?”

For example, why does a new operating table need to cost $80,000, a price that’s unreasonable for many hospitals in the developing world? That’s exactly the question a group of VCU students asked before they designed and developed a 24-inch cube that assembles into a full-size, hospital-grade table that moves in three dimensions. This table costs no more than $500 and can easily be shipped to any hospital or clinic in the world. It may change the way we practice medicine, and it was designed by VCU students who are studying engineering, art and business.

Another question we need to ask: Why do 210,000 Americans die from preventable medical mistakes every year? It’s the third-leading cause of death behind cancer and heart disease, and equal to roughly two jumbo jets crashing every day.

That is one reason I’m so proud that VCU Medical Center just won the esteemed McKesson Award from the American Hospital Association, for our commitment to quality and safety. It reflects work at every level, from our administrators and care providers to the residents and students who serve alongside them. In fact, it was an M3 named David Jessee who recently noticed an inconsistency on a patient’s chart and worked with the attending to revise that patient’s care, and possibly save her life.

VCU has a head start in its goal to be the safest hospital in America, one in which no patient is ever harmed by a mistake that could have been prevented. I ask you, our students, to think about how we can work together, following your interprofessional model, to make that goal our reality.

I appreciate the chance to visit with you today. And I look forward to finding ways in which I can continue to tell your story. It’s a remarkable one from which we all can learn.

Thank you for your enthusiasm to change not only health care but to change the world. I know that by working together and learning together, you will do exactly that.