Q&A: Charles B. Cairns, MD, Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean
The College of Medicine's new dean took office on August 26, 2019, amid a disruptive situation: the owners of Hahnemann University Hospital and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children had declared bankruptcy, and Hahnemann was all but closed.
Chuck Cairns, however, was undaunted by the challenges. He had just finished his term as the dean of medicine and health sciences at the United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi. Before that, he served as dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Tucson, where he helped create one of the largest nonprofit health systems in the country.
What do you see as the role of the Dean?
Clearly, the primary duty is the education of medical students — supporting the necessary faculty, staff resources, facilities, educational and clinical experiences. In addition, I've always had a commitment to developing a broader academic innovation ecosystem. In other words, making sure we embrace research, training, innovation as key components of the medical school. We can translate these educational experiences, research discoveries, new technologies and evolving care models to the benefit of the clinics, hospitals, health care systems and populations we serve.
What is the Dean's role in this current moment at the College?
A key aspect of being Dean is facilitating a fuller integration of the College of Medicine into the broader University and interacting with Drexel's strong programs in health-related fields like nursing and public health. In addition, we can take advantage of the unique opportunities for innovation in collaboration with engineering, especially biomedical engineering; the Center for Functional Fabrics; the Game Design program; and programs in the College of Computing & Informatics.
I also consider our place as a College in the community. We have a new clinical partner in Tower Health that brings us beyond the city into smaller urban, suburban, and rural parts of Pennsylvania. We can really take on the issues of populations who've been underserved by medicine as well as underrepresented in education, training and research. The Dean needs to serve as a catalyst for integrating the College into new partnerships, programs and projects.
The wonderful part about being at Drexel, and why I was honored to be offered the position, is the foundation of Hahnemann Medical College and Woman's Medical College, and later the Medical College of Pennsylvania. Those medical schools have had a huge impact on health care, education and research, not just in Philadelphia, but around the globe. A key aspect of my position is building upon that foundation and expanding the opportunities for impact across communities both here and around the country, if not the world.
What are some immediate goals?
My first goal would be to better integrate the experiences for our medical students, our residents and our faculty with the communities we serve. Specifically, with the acquisition of St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in partnership with Tower Health, we can focus in on the needs, not only of pediatric patients, but of a population that's underserved by medicine. With our additional campus at Tower Health in West Reading, we'll be able to do the same, as well as incorporate clinical research directly into health care.
As part of this goal, we are developing a comprehensive approach to research. The eventual move of our medical education group into University City, announced in December, will give us the opportunity to intersect more easily with Drexel's other schools, so we can start to have shared programs and increase our interdisciplinary research. We can be an integral part of a biomedical innovation hub that's rapidly evolving in University City and Schuylkill Yards.
What challenges has the College faced?
The bankruptcy and closure of Hahnemann University Hospital disrupted the lives of patients, faculty physicians, clinical staff and more than 500 residents and fellows. It cut off an important clinical training site for our medical students. Fortunately, our Office of Educational Affairs quickly arranged rotations at other affiliated sites for those affected. We worked with clinical faculty members to either transition to Tower Health or find appropriate practices. All of the former Drexel/Hahnemann residents are now in new training positions.
Over the years, the challenges faced by Hahnemann Hospital under for-profit owners — first Tenet and then American Academic Health System — often became challenges for us. But Hahnemann Medical College lives on in Drexel University College of Medicine.
What is your vision for the school?
This can be a time of transformation. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to integrate the College of Medicine with the University, our community, and additional urban, rural and suburban settings. Imagine being at the forefront of innovation, diversity and inclusion, and directly benefiting our communities. We can be a national leader, if not a world leader, in how to address the needs of these groups.
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