Amid Challenges, Chancellor Optimistic About UCSF Leadership as Health Sciences Innovator

Susan Desmond-Hellmann Recounts Past Year’s Highlights, Progress

By Louise Chu

State budget cuts have strained UCSF’s resources over the past year, but the University is adapting to the challenges and continues to lead the way in health sciences research, education and patient care, the chancellor said Tuesday.

“Those last several years that we’ve been living in the midst of great change and financial constraints have put a lot of stress on the people of UCSF,” said Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH.

But, she added, “even though I want to acknowledge the challenges, I want to thank the people who are persevering in their excellence in these challenges. … I’m optimistic because the people at UCSF are the ones who make us great.”

In her third annual State of the University address since becoming the ninth UCSF chancellor in 2009, Desmond-Hellmann praised the past year’s progress toward achieving UCSF’s 2014-2015 Strategic Plan, and outlined areas of focus for the next year.

Among the highlights of the past year were:

Another recent milestone was philanthropist Chuck Feeney’s $20 million gift through the Atlantic Philanthropies to establish a Global Health Sciences hub at Mission Bay.

“The vision behind this is to have one physical location for some of the researchers, scientists and students, and to jumpstart our vision to become one of the world’s leading centers for global health sciences,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “This gift for global health science really will be transformative for us.”

Despite the current challenges, the chancellor pointed to her five-point strategic plan to lead the University into its upcoming 150-year anniversary in 2014 as the “world’s preeminent health sciences innovator.”

The plan was launched last year and has since been refined to include specific goals and metrics for success.

“They are not just words on a piece of paper, they’re not just aspirational,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “We’re going to look at these and measure our success by these, and we can take action quickly if we’re falling behind.”

So far, UCSF is tracking well in nearly every area, said the chancellor, who invited key leaders to speak about achievements and challenges for each category.

Providing Unparalleled Patient Care

Over the past year and a half, UCSF has been gradually moving its health records into an electronic system at all its practices – a shift that has been “a great boon for patient safety and quality,” said Mark Laret, CEO of the UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, who has been working on this project for the past decade.

Jeff Bluestone, PhD
Jeff Bluestone, PhD

The APeX system consolidates patient information into a central database, allows patients to access the information online, helps physicians and nurses to detect complications and catch medication errors, and provides clinical data that the research community can tap.

“Implementing this was not without bumps. There ware many practices that are still struggling today with the change in practice from a paper system to the electronic system, but we’re very optimistic long-term that this is the future and this will be the way that we provide the best level of care to our patients,” Laret said.

Improving Health Through Innovative Science

Millions have been poured into innovative ways to make research and education accessible across the campus and to the public, said Jeff Bluestone, PhD, executive vice chancellor and provost at UCSF.

One burgeoning area is online learning, where the University is committing significant funding from the UCSF Fund for Innovative Certificate and Degree-Granting Educational Programs to provide classes through Coursera. The first three courses are set to begin in January, and already 48,000 people have enrolled, Bluestone noted.

UCSF also has committed $5 million to developing and recruiting in basic and clinical bioinformatics. “We know that the future of research is going to be to take and create all this data and use it effectively to help define cures for our patients and to help the wellness of our society,” he said. 

Supporting Talented and Diverse Trainees

This fall, the campus opened the new Multicultural Resource Center, which will serve as a hub for faculty, staff and students who want a place to collaborate interprofessionally, said Renee Navarro, PharmD, MD, vice chancellor of Diversity and Outreach.

Renee Navarro, PharmD, MD
Renee Navarro, PharmD, MD

Another major component to supporting students and diversity is the Chancellor’s Education Fundraising Initiative, which Desmond-Hellmann launched in April with a call to raise $100 million toward scholarships and fellowships by June 2015.

The chancellor kicked off the initiative by personally pledging with her husband $1 million and challenging each school to match the gift. The challenge was met, creating a $500,000 Chancellor’s Endowed Scholarship in the schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, said Joseph Castro, PhD, vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs.

To date, the initiative already has raised a total of $28 million. “These funds are going to enable us at UCSF to continue recruiting and enabling the most talented and diverse students regardless of their financial circumstances,” Castro said.

Impressed by the fundraising progress, Desmond-Hellmann joked, “It turns out you can raise money for student support, even without a football team.”

Being a Workplace of Choice

Desmond-Hellmann pointed to succession planning as a key tool for ensuring the University’s future by nurturing talent of up-and-coming leaders. Not only does it prompt UCSF officials to identify that talent, but it also offers opportunities to help those individuals improve and grow, she said.

Joseph Castro, PhD
Joseph Castro, PhD

“One of the greatest things I ever hear from people on our campus is, ‘I want to be a leader here. I have aspirations to use my talents to advance the mission of UCSF,’ and I see this effort in succession planning part of how to address those aspirations and the great talent pool we have on this campus,” she said.

Creating a Financially Sustainable Business Model

“None of the first four goals will be possible if we can’t afford them,” Desmond-Hellmann began in her discussion of an ongoing initiative that aims to improve administrative services while achieving significant cost savings.

“Operational Excellence has allowed us to ask a very important question, which is, ‘Other than history, why do we do it this way?’ And if the answer is, ‘Only because we always have,’ we have the opportunity to change for the better.”

To this end, the chancellor is forming a governance board as part of the Future of UCSF project that will evaluate UCSF’s unique financial position in the UC system. While the other nine campuses are grappling with the issue of undergraduate student fees, more than 80 percent of revenue at UCSF comes from clinical care and research, she noted. Only about 1 percent of UCSF's budget comes from tuition.

The board will begin meeting by the beginning of 2013 and “make sure that we can be nimble and competitive in a world of health care reform and flat NIH budgets.”

“A lot of what this is about is ensuring that we can do the high-wire act that we do every day – balancing our commitment and passion with our public mission – with figuring out how to pay for it,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

Goals for 2012-2013

Over the next year, the chancellor says she plans to redouble efforts on diversity and inclusion, improve the financial planning process through the Future of UCSF project and focus on philanthropy with the $100 million Chancellor’s Education Fundraising Initiative.

The University also will be launching a branding and marketing campaign that will unify the campus and boost its visibility as it prepares for the 150th anniversary and opening of the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay.

“We each come to work, we put our head down and we work on our little piece of UCSF and what that means, but in putting together the branding and marketing strategy for UCSF, this allows us to collectively think of who UCSF is for the world, what our aspirations are personally and professionally,” she said.

“And what I need from each of you is to contribute to that enterprise wide ‘One UCSF’ that can benefit everybody, everything you're trying to accomplish. It's my expectation and my belief that in doing so, UCSF will be even better than it is today.”

Photos by Susan Merrell