Re-energizing our commitment to Hoosier health and well-being

Dear Friend of Indiana University:

I want to devote this update to some major and exciting recent developments in the health sciences at Indiana University. Our extensive contributions to the health and well-being of the citizens of our state can be seen in countless ways, and they are directly linked to what have been IU’s education and research missions for nearly two centuries.

We have a magnificent tradition of research excellence in the life and health sciences -- from five Nobel Prizes for fundamental discoveries about the basic building blocks of life itself, to new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for deadly diseases such as cancer.  

We are, by far, the state’s largest and most important center for health sciences education and research with highly ranked programs in medicine, nursing, dentistry, public health, optometry, speech and hearing, social work and health and rehabilitation sciences. Our School of Medicine, established in 1903 and the largest medical school in the U.S., currently has more than 20,000 living graduates. It has grown to include nine medical sciences programs located in nearly every major city in the state in addition to the main program in Indianapolis. To these must be added the thriving health sciences programs on all of our regional campuses, which provide many of the health sciences graduates who stay, work and play such an important role in the well-being of the citizens in these regions. Collectively, IU’s health science schools produce the vast majority of the state’s health science professionals, including doctors, nurses, social workers and dentists.

As one of the nation’s leading public research universities, we have made major investments in research designed to establish new protocols for the prevention, treatment, control and cure of disease, pain and suffering.

Finally, our impact is tremendously amplified through our close and dynamic partnership with IU Health, the largest hospital and health care system in Indiana, serving tens of thousands of patients a year, and home to numerous nationally prominent specialty practices.

Despite all of our growth and accomplishments, however, we know we cannot afford to stand still. The health challenges facing our state are too immense -- and continuing to address and surmount them will have a major impact on ensuring Indiana continues to thrive economically in a highly competitive environment. As the state’s health education and research powerhouse, IU is the principal hope for dramatic improvements in health care based on some of the most advanced research, treatments and practices.

In what follows I’ll describe some recent and exciting major initiatives -- including some of the most important, innovative and ambitious efforts ever undertaken at IU -- to usher in a new era of outstanding health care, train the next generation of the best health care professionals and meet the most critical challenges facing our communities and the nation.

More than a hospital: A model for innovative health sciences education and research

A rendering of the new IU Health Regional Academic Health Center scheduled to open in 2020.

Last month, on a truly historic day for Bloomington and southern Indiana, I had the great pleasure, together with IU Health President and CEO Dennis Murphy, of breaking ground on the new, nearly $400 million IU Health Regional Academic Health Center that is being built on the IU Bloomington campus. It will replace the IU Health Bloomington Hospital first established over 100 years ago in 1905. 

Breaking ground on a new hospital is a momentous occasion in itself. Indeed, it has often been said that the replacement of a hospital is a once-in-a-century event. But this will be much more than a hospital. It will be, as is reflected in its name, an academic health center, one that will soon join the nation’s other outstanding such centers in leading the way in educating the next generation of health professionals and making scientific breakthroughs that will lead to new treatments and therapies.

The new Regional Academic Health Center will have two components -- the new 600,000-square-foot IU Health Bloomington Hospital and the new 115,000-square-foot Indiana University Academic Health Sciences Building -- that will bring together most of the extensive academic health science programs on the Bloomington campus, which are the largest in the state outside of Indianapolis, into one place.

These programs include the IU Bloomington Medical Sciences Program, one of the nine mentioned above, which trains medical students in the IU School of Medicine, as well as Bloomington programs in IU’s schools of nursingsocial work, optometry and public health, and in the highly-ranked Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The colocation of these programs into the new IU Academic Health Sciences Building will enable a major increase in the number of students in them, thus helping to address the acute shortage of healthcare workers in the state. In particular, we expect to increase the number of medical and nursing students by over 50 percent in coming years.

Colocation of these programs in the Regional Academic Health Center will also enable all of the academic programs housed there to fully and effectively participate in inter-professional health sciences education activities, where students from different health science disciplines train together in the same way that they will work together when they graduate. The education of health science students in this inter-professional way is now widely seen as being essential for future education programs in these areas. Vice President of University Clinical Affairs and Dean of the IU School of Medicine Jay Hess deserves great credit for the development of IU’s inter-professional programs, which are regarded as some of the leading programs in the nation.

The new Academic Health Sciences Building and the Regional Academic Health Center, more broadly, will help IU maximize its full capacity for research in the health sciences. It will be a splendid home for many IU faculty and students who conduct biomedical, clinical, population-level and health sciences research, helping them to translate their discoveries into improved approaches to health and disease. It will also allow us to establish new programs in areas of the health sciences not presently represented in Bloomington. To this end, the IU School of Dentistry will be establishing a program in the center on its completion, its first ever in Bloomington, and we expect other new programs will also be established there once the center is operational.

Finally, we were delighted to announce that much of the cost of the Academic Health Sciences Building, the largest economic development project in Bloomington’s history, will be funded with revenue from the Big Ten Network. This represents IU’s major commitment to the people of Bloomington and the region and to their health and well-being. These are the people who, for nearly 200 years, have been among the most ardent, most passionate and proudest supporters of IU. And, of course, they are the most ardent, most passionate and proudest supporters of Hoosier athletics through thick and thin. So, it is only fitting that the new building should reflect this support. This is truly Hoosier athletics giving back to the people of Bloomington and the region.

A commitment to improving oral health in Indiana

More than a hundred new dental chairs have been installed in the new IU School of Dentistry James Fritts, DDS Clinical Care Center. Photo by Liz Kaye, IU Communications

Later this week, on March 2, we will formally dedicate a much-needed new addition to the IU School of Dentistry on the IUPUI campus, the first major expansion for the school’s facilities since the late 1970s.

Over the years, dental education has evolved into a modern comprehensive program of scientifically-based professional education, undertaken in an environment in which the creation and acquisition of new scientific and clinical knowledge are of the greatest importance and actively pursued.

Nowhere is this in greater evidence than in the 136-year-old IU School of Dentistry, the state’s only school of dentistry, one of the oldest dental schools in the nation and one with a rich legacy of teaching, research and service programs that have made major contributions to the promotion of optimal oral health. 

Each year the school produces hundreds of new dentists, as well as dental hygienists, dental assistants and other specialists, many of whom continue to practice in the Hoosier state throughout their professional careers. Indeed, more than 80 percent of the dentists practicing in Indiana are alumni of the school.

Additionally, current students and supervising faculty deliver treatment to more than 19,000 patients a year, providing an important service in a state that still suffers from a shortage of trained dentists and where many Hoosiers, particularly those living in rural areas, have difficulty accessing quality oral health care, which can have a major impact on overall health and well-being.

The new Fritts Clinical Care Center will be named in honor of its lead benefactor, Dr. James Fritts of Rochester, Indiana, a 1965 graduate of the dental school. The three-story, 45,000-square-foot Fritts Center will dramatically increase the school’s capacity, adding 125 new patient treatment chairs, making it one of the most technologically current dental schools in the country. All of the clinics that will be housed in the new addition will be fully operational by July 1, the start of the school’s 2018-19 academic year. We are extremely grateful to Dr. Fritts and to all the other donors who have made this wonderful new facility possible.

Leading the fight against cancer

Earlier this month, we were extremely pleased to announce a $14 million gift to the IU School of Medicine from the Walther Cancer Foundation, which will support our efforts to establish a program focused on helping patients and their families manage the symptoms, pain and stress that often accompany a cancer diagnosis.

This gift, which we believe to be the largest gift in the country to support an initiative of this kind, will create a supportive oncology program that extends beyond standard therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to care for a patient’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Supportive oncology is related to palliative care, a growing discipline that provides extra layers of support for patients with serious illnesses. 

More than 35,000 Hoosiers are diagnosed with cancer each year, and the disease affects each of them in complex, unique and sometimes devastating ways. The Walther Supportive Oncology Program, which will be developed in partnership with IU Health, will focus heavily on research in areas such as physician-patient communication, care coordination, symptom management and the long-term effects of cancer on survivors. This work includes laboratory research to predict which patients will suffer side effects to specific therapies and how to mediate them, and to discover treatments that are less toxic.

Through this outstanding gift, which will endow five faculty positions, we will create a comprehensive, multidisciplinary, team-based program that will have a positive impact on care for cancer patients and their families throughout Indiana and around the country by providing expertise and best-practices for other health systems to model, with particular attention to the underserved in our communities. We are immensely grateful to the Walther Cancer Foundation for its generosity in making this new program possible.

Ending the opioid epidemic

President McRobbie speaks at the announcement of the newest Grand Challenges initiative, Responding to the Addictions Crisis, on Oct. 10, 2017.  Photo by Liz Kaye, IU Communications

IU continues to make strong progress in advancing the goals of the university’s newest Grand Challenges initiative, Responding to the Addictions Crisis, which we are implementing across our seven campuses and in partnership with Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb, state officials, IU Health and Eskenazi Health. This sweeping $50 million initiative, through which we will train addiction specialists and conduct essential research into the science behind substance use disorders, is one of the largest and most comprehensive state-based responses to the opioid addiction crisis, and the largest led by a university.

As IU Vice President for Research Fred Cate recently wrote in The Indianapolis Star, the opioid epidemic that has swept the country is one of the worst health crises ever faced by our state and the nation, and it impacts diverse groups of people. In Indiana alone, where Hoosiers are now more likely to die from a drug overdose than a car accident, opioid overdose deaths rose 52 percent between 2015 and 2016 and have more than doubled in the last three years. Furthermore, according to the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, the total cost of drug overdoses in Indiana tops $1 billion annually, measured in medical expenses and lifetime earnings losses.

IU is fully committed to leveraging the full strength of faculty on all of our campuses and working at a grassroots level with our industry, non-profit and government partners to curb this crippling epidemic. To this end, earlier this month we announced the first phase of projects of the Addictions Grand Challenges Initiative, which includes vital projects such as creating a statewide data commons on opioid use; developing an educational program for addiction counseling; and improving training for future health professionals in pain management and alternatives to opioids.

Collectively, these 16 projects, which will be implemented over the next six months, represent a critical first step in IU engaging its formidable and extensive clinical and research capabilities toward helping the state achieve one of its highest priorities, and we look forward to rapidly advancing a second round of projects later this year.

Improving the health of our state’s communities

Habitat for Humanity is one of the many volunteer programs in which IU students participate.

IU Bloomington, under the energetic leadership of Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel, has been evaluating for some time how to broaden and deepen its relationship with the counties in the region where the campus is located, focused on improving the quality of life for all who live there.

This has led to the establishment of the new IU Center for Rural Engagement, implemented with the support of Lilly Endowment Inc. The center is working with partners from across the 11 surrounding counties in southwest central Indiana to address both the challenges and opportunities facing people in the region. As part of this work, it will seek to create options and solutions for entrenched and emerging population health issues, including substance abuse, obesity and diabetes, infant mortality, tobacco use and chronic disease.

The center, which last month announced a new partnership with Orange County as part of its Sustaining Hoosier Communities initiative, now in its second year, is engaging faculty and students from across IU Bloomington schools and programs in applied research and service-learning projects aimed at finding solutions to the challenges these communities face and in advancing opportunities identified by the communities themselves.

Among the center’s current projects are: a partnership between the School of Public Health-Bloomington, IU Health and community organizations to conduct community health needs assessments in the region; new and evolving programs within the IU schools of medicine, nursing and social work that focus on population health, mental health and addiction and help train health care professionals to meet the needs of the region; and leadership development opportunities through the IU School of Medicine and the IU Kelley School of Business for medical professionals who serve at regional hospitals and medical centers.

The new center will be supported, in part, by IU Corps, a new umbrella network for all types of student service and volunteer activity at IU Bloomington, which currently offers more than 160 community engagement programs and over 200 service-learning classes. From spring 2010 to spring 2018, IU Bloomington students provided more than 300,000 hours of work through service-learning classes alone, the majority of which are in the state of Indiana.

IU Corps will bring together the many types of service-focused community engagement efforts in which students are involved so that we can get a better sense of where IU is already making an impact -- and where it can be of greater service to communities at home in Indiana, nationally and around the world.

The Bloomington campus and community partners will come together this Thursday, March 1, to celebrate the kickoff of this wonderful program, which promises to heighten the visibility of service opportunities for students while providing a single point of entry for agencies and potential partners.

A new School of Health and Human Sciences

For the last six years IU has been heavily engaged in a process of re-imagining all of its academic programs in the light of student educational demand, the needs of the economy and dynamic new prospects for research. This has led to the establishment of nine new schools, many new programs and dozens of new degrees.

At the December meeting of the IU Board of Trustees, the 10th and latest new school was approved -- the School of Health and Human Sciences at IUPUI. This school will be formed from the merger of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the School of Physical Education and Tourism, and will commence operations on July 1, under Acting Dean Rafael Bahamonde.

The new school will build on the current strengths of both schools while also creating new opportunities to build excellence. It will reduce competition and produce stronger, aligned undergraduate programs, hence providing a solid foundation for future careers in the health professions as well as emerging careers related to health and wellness. It will build new programs and tighter connections among areas such as kinesiology, health sciences, nutrition and dietetics, occupational therapy, physician assistant studies and physical therapy, which will offer great benefit to aspiring students of the school.

The faculty and staff of both schools are to be congratulated for their enthusiasm and strong support for this merger. I am sure that, together, they will create a very important new addition to IU’s extensive health sciences programs.

A final word: The unsung heroes

Almost exactly 80 years ago, at the dedication of an IU School of Medicine facility, IU’s 11th president Herman B Wells observed that those present were not merely dedicating a building, they were also dedicating themselves to the work ahead which the building would make possible.

“The unsung heroes whose courage over the operating table, whose skilled care of the ailing, and whose careful research in the laboratory will advance the health and knowledge of humanity,” Wells said, “will by their actions afford the state and nation ample proof of the high trust in which these facilities have been reposed.”

IU has long recognized and appreciated the trust our citizens have placed in us and our responsibility to lead the way in improving health in our state. Indeed, because of this essential role that we continue to embrace, ours has been a relentless quest to support the highest-quality health sciences education, research and clinical care. 

Many of you have been instrumental in these vital efforts. In your common commitment to improving the health and well-being of Hoosier communities, you are the “unsung heroes” that Herman Wells described, and for all that you do we are all immensely grateful.

With thanks as always,

Michael A. McRobbie
Indiana University