Dean Cairns: Ready to Build on a Legacy
Charles B. Cairns, MD, embarked on his tenure as the Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean of Drexel University College of Medicine at a time of unprecedented change for the medical school, in the wake of the bankruptcy and pending closure of Hahnemann University Hospital. When Cairns accepted the deanship, he knew that the academic affiliation agreement with the hospital would be up for renewal in 2022; he was looking at a three-year process. "Since then," as he says, "the world has changed a lot." Cairns made a number of trips to Philadelphia over the summer "to see how we could address the rapidly evolving situation," and took office as scheduled on August 26. The College of Medicine's new dean and senior vice president for medical affairs is energized by challenges. "I have always liked to see how I can play a role in a larger or more impactful position or endeavor," he says.
That's one reason he specialized in emergency medicine. "I started off in emergency medicine when it was a young specialty," he explains. "I thought it would be a wonderful place not only to take care of patients, but also to be involved in what I knew was going to be a lot of evolution and innovation." And that's what happened, he notes: "Emergency medicine expanded dramatically, both in scope and scale — emergency medical services grew, education and training programs increased, and research output went up."
Cairns became a leader in emergency medicine and critical care research. He joined Duke University in 2004 as associate chief of emergency medicine and director of emergency medicine research at the Duke Clinical Research Institute. "I went from laboratory science in isolation to small patient studies to taking on large clinical trials and population-based work," he says.
From Duke, he was recruited to chair the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, he was involved in systems strategy during UNC Health Care's rapid expansion from three to 14 hospitals. "I learned a lot about the modern health care system environment," he says.
Next, Cairns went to the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Tucson with appointments as dean of the college and assistant vice president for the University of Arizona Health Sciences. He also led a $1.2 billion partnership with Banner Health, which created one of the largest nonprofit health systems in the country. "That partnership provided extraordinary lessons," he says, "not just in terms of the evolution and consolidation of health care systems, but also in how academics can serve as an innovation engine to the benefit of both."
While he was dean, the number of applicants to the medical college doubled and, in 2016, the school admitted its most diverse class ever. Cairns oversaw a wave of faculty recruitments, a 31 percent increase in research expenditures, and a boost in the College's NIH funding rank from 66 to 51.
An intriguing new challenge arose for Cairns when a group from the United Arab Emirates University came to the University of Arizona to talk about opening a branch campus in Dubai. Their dialogue led to conversations about health care within the UAE. At the time, the UAE University, the only national university in the country, was searching for a dean of medicine and health sciences. Those discussions deepened, and Cairns was offered the deanship. He accepted.
"The College has a long history of innovation, from its very beginnings."
"I recognized that it would probably be a time-limited position," he says, "but I wanted to help their medical school develop and transition to their own leadership. It was certainly valuable to be in the Emirates and start to apply population health management and precision medicine concepts." In the UAE, health care is provided for everyone, giving Cairns an interesting model for what an all-inclusive, population-centered approach to health care could be.
At the same time, he realized that his experience and training were really best suited to take on those issues in the United States. When he decided that he was ready to come back, Drexel had launched a national search for the next dean of the College of Medicine. He saw this as "an extraordinary opportunity."
"I think Drexel embodies the best of American medicine," says Cairns, a native of Philadelphia. "The College has a long history of innovation, from its beginnings in the founding of Hahnemann and Woman's Medical College. It also has a history of inclusion and service," he adds. "Also, the College has addressed many challenges with remarkable resilience. The idea of seeing what that next phase of American medical education, research and innovation will look like is attractive to me.
"I want to work with the Drexel community and the rich network of alumni to shape this vision together. I see an opportunity for Drexel to be a leader in academic medicine, ensuring better care for patients, enhancing population health by increasing engagement with communities, and doing this within a more affordable, accessible health care system," Cairns continues.
"Imagine if we expand our efforts to populations that have been underserved and underrepresented not just in the city but also in rural counties. No one has come up with a way to ensure that that population is fairly represented in clinical trials. With Tower Health as our new collaborator, I'm confident that we could be a leader in these endeavors. This would be consistent with the history of the College as an innovator that integrates with the communities it serves."
Cairns is also committed to basic science research, which he describes as the foundation of medical school innovation. "I'm really impressed by our basic science faculty — their research productivity and, more importantly, their commitment to innovation and evolution in medical science. Not only am I fully supportive of their efforts, I look forward to continuing investments in the expansion of our basic science research activities."
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