If there is one thing that all Americans can agree on in the health care debate, it's that the system is a mess crying out for creative solutions. Solving that problem is what intrigued Vivian Lee about leading University of Utah Health Sciences. The position, which she accepted in 2011, let her launch a unified attack on the shortcomings of American health care, which she says is sapping the nation's productivity.
"What you need is an organization that can partner between the academic folks, who are the think tank for medicine, and the hospitals, which are like the laboratory," Lee explains. "There are not a lot of places in the country that are doing that."
The University of Utah, she says, happens to be that rare beast where medicine's ivory tower shares office space with the ER.
As chief executive of the U of U's Health Care network and dean of the U of U's School of Medicine, she can work for solutions to health care. The position gives her oversight of four hospitals, the John Moran Eye Center, the Huntsman Institute, 1,200 physicians and an annual budget of $2.3 billion. "We are care providers," she says of the medical-services delivery network. "We understand the challenges of health care. As university hospitals, we tend to serve the underserved. We get the sickest patients with the most complicated medical issues."
And she's also dean of the School of Medicine. "On the academic side, we have the thought leaders who can get us out of this mess. We have economists and behavior scientists and academics who know insurance."
Lee is a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate from Oxford in medical engineering, a medical degree from Harvard Medical School and an MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business. Before coming to Utah, Lee was chief scientific officer and senior vice president of NYU's Medical Center.
Attacking one side of the health care problem, Lee has already begun pressing the Legislature to increase the number of students accepted into the Medical School. For years, the school's enrollment was set at 102 students, even though the state's population tripled over the same time. Then four years ago, federal funding cuts forced a reduction to 82 students. Every year, more than 1,500 applicants vie for those slots.
"For its population, Utah is fourth from the bottom in primary care physicians," Lee explains. "That's not good. And as we are the second-fastest-growing state in the country, it's only going to get worse."
Working closely with Lee, state Sen. John Valentine convinced the Legislature to add 40 medical school slots at a cost of $10 million annually. In the past, one of the hurdles to expanding Utah's medical school has been that lawmakers are irked that too many of the publically-subsidized positions go to out-of-state applicants or, worse, to graduates who take their Utah MDs out of state for higher-paying jobs.
Lee's talents obviously extend beyond medicine to political savvy. The bill won over lawmakers with a requirement that any new openings will go to students with "strong Utah ties," including Utah residents who left the state for undergrad degrees, but consider Utah their home.