Tennessee health science chancellor says pandemic has created resilience in health care

Dr. Peter Buckley took over as the 11th chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in February and recently made his first trip to Chattanooga to meet with area partners.

The chancellor is the CEO of the center, which is the state's public health and medical education system, based in Memphis. The system comprises six doctoral-level health science colleges: medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, graduate health sciences and health professions. It also encompasses major regional clinical health science locations in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville.

Buckley sat down with the Times Free Press during a recent - and his first ever - visit to Chattanooga and shared his vision for the future of Tennessee's health and medical education.

Q: What brings you to Chattanooga?

A: The first thing is to learn more about the health care system and fantastic partnership that we have with Erlanger [Health System]. It has an excellent national reputation and a long-standing affiliation with our Health Sciences University. And then, of course, there is the University of Tennessee Chattanooga campus. So there are a lot of reasons to visit, both to say, "thank you, for all the support and the effort in training tomorrow's health care providers," but also to learn more about the region and opportunities in education, research and workforce development. I'm grateful to local lawmakers, Rep. Patsy Hazlewood and Sen. Bo Watson, both of whom have been staunch supporters of workforce development, graduate medical education and growing the health care workforce in the great state of Tennessee. Next time when I come back soon, I hope to meet more of the community.

Q: You're six weeks into the job, what have you been up to so far?

A: Starting in Memphis, I've been getting a broader understanding of the health sciences portfolio. Even though we like to say Memphis is our home, Tennessee is our campus, and so we really have a statewide reach and the statewide responsibility as the largest educator of health care professionals in the state. It's our responsibility to train tomorrow's workforce, to engage in partnerships to advance clinical care, and then to conduct research that's relevant to the health of Tennesseans. That goes on, all across the state, including through our partnership in Chattanooga.

Q: What makes the Chattanooga campus and partnership with Erlanger important to the health of Tennesseans?

A: The strong faculty and welcoming health care system increase the likelihood medical students will either stay on in residency or that they'll come back to the region, and that really forms the basis for how you populate the health care providers in the region. It seems some way off from the beginning of someone who's junior in their training, but it really takes that longitudinal viewpoint, so that you attract people back into the community. If you're in a state where you do your medical school training and then you do your residency training there's roughly a 70% chance that you're going to stay. Then, if you project that into a more rural area, that is much more powerful than trying to recruit people that aren't connected with that region to practice in a rural community.

Q: Can you talk more about the need for providers in rural areas?

A: When you look across at the overall health care of Tennessee, it's not as strong as it should be. We have obesity rates substantially above the national rates, childhood obesity rates around 38%, high rates of smoking-related disorders and cardiovascular disorders, and much of that is driven by rural disparities in health care. That's why it's important to have opportunities to train in rural regions with the hope that people will settle in, enjoy the work and want to contribute back to that area.

Q: What should people know about your goals and vision for health science education in the state?

A: Part of having a vision is learning about a place, setting a direction and then having the vision really be the organization's vision and translating that into a strategic plan. Some key components would be to increase the workforce in all of the health sciences and provide a diverse workforce that matches the population of Tennessee. And then, do that in a way that reaches out across the state, particularly within rural regions. I see philanthropy as a very core part of the plan moving forward as well as the importance of building up research, both basic science research and then also translational research. I also think we have opportunities to reflect and see how we would change health sciences education post-pandemic.

Q: How has the pandemic affected health sciences education and training?

A: It'll play out over time, but training under these extraordinary, uncertain and adversarial circumstances has created a degree of resilience amongst people that they would never otherwise have gotten. I think there was a lot of very valuable learning under truly unfortunate complexities with great stress. You don't deliver a baby virtually, so how do you get that experience as part of your training? Then of course, many had the experience of being proxy relatives for patients - some of whom died. That put some students in a much more up close and personal experience than they'd had before. You never train to supplant the presence of a loved one, and that happened. While I think that contributed to the resilience as well as some of the burnout, particularly when we have something that goes on unrelenting. But, it will repay American health care in the long run. I think we're going to create vicariously --maybe not in the way we set out to - the greatest generation of health care providers because they've had this unique experience.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

More about Dr. Peter Buckley

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Buckley and his wife emigrated to America in 1992. A psychiatrist and expert in schizophrenia, Buckley is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and serves on the Data and Safety Monitoring Board of the National Institute of Mental Health. He most recently served as the dean of the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and executive vice president of medical affairs for the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System. Prior to that, he was the dean of the School of Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta for seven years, overseeing regional campuses across the state. He succeeds Dr. Steve Schwab, who served as the health science center chancellor for approximately 12 years.