Category Archives: Uncategorized

Our Commitment to Excellence in Autism Research

As the Dean of the UNC School of Medicine (UNC SOM) and the CEO of UNC Health Care, I am surrounded by the best and brightest minds, all of whom work tirelessly to make our vision – to be the nation’s leading public academic health care system – a reality. One way we do that is through our unwavering commitment to research.

According to the CDC, 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In North Carolina alone, it is estimated that over 60,000 people live with ASD. As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month this April, I want to highlight the groundbreaking research the UNC SOM has conducted over the last year.

Last April, UNC SOM helped launch SPARK, the nation’s largest genetic research study for autism to better understand its causes and help usher in an era of personalized medicine and targeted treatment. This nationwide project, led locally by Joseph Piven, MD, and Gabriel Dichter, PhD, will collect information and DNA from 50,000 individuals with autism — along with their families — to better understand the genetics of this condition.

Since then, Piven, director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, and his team have unveiled numerous insights. In February, they published the results of a first-of-its-kind study that used MRIs to map the brains of infants. Using these MRI results, Piven and his team were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later be diagnosed with autism at two years of age. Just last month, this team published yet another study which found that many toddlers diagnosed with autism at two years of age had a substantially greater amount of extra-axial cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) at both six months and one year – before diagnosis is possible – pointing to faulty CSF flow as one of the possible causes of autism.

Thanks to Dr. Piven, Dr. Dichter and several others, UNC SOM was awarded $223 million for autism-related research from 2006 to 2015. In the last ten years, 34 UNC departments have been awarded for their respective autism research. These investments make this research possible. Most importantly, it helps bring us closer to tackling some of our world’s most pressing health care challenges.

To learn more about the SPARK initiative, click here.

To learn more about the MRI autism study, click here.

To learn more about the CSF autism study, click here.

Improving Mental and Behavioral Health in Our State

UNC Health Care is committed to caring for all patients, including those with mental and behavioral health issues. As our population grows, the demand for beds and dedicated inpatient psychiatric care continues to rise.

In Wake County, more than 65,000 people suffer from a serious mental illness. Yet, from 2012 to 2015, we were one of just three states to decrease behavioral health spending each year. More than half of our counties are without a psychiatrist, and only 35 percent of our hospitals have a psychiatric unit.

Regular hospitals and health facilities often don’t have the time or resources necessary to help treat and provide services for those with mental health, behavioral and substance abuse problems.

At UNC Health Care, we are taking steps to address this growing need. At UNC REX, we have worked to improve our triage process in the emergency department to ensure that mental health patients get the care they need as quickly as possible. We also recently expanded UNC WakeBrook, a facility in Raleigh designed to care for those with mental health, behavioral and substance abuse problems.

At the federal level, we are pleased to see policymakers making mental and behavioral health a priority as well. Late last year, the 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law.

Among many other things, the Act strengthens laws mandating coverage parity for mental health care and provides funding to help increase the numbers of psychologists and psychiatrists.

The expansion of WakeBrook and the 21st Century Cures Act are steps in the right direction, but there are always opportunities to do more. We will continue working closely with public health officials and legislators to provide better care and better access to our state’s mental and behavioral health patients.


UNC Health Care Again Ranks Among Best Hospitals in the Nation

At UNC Health Care, our vision is clear: to be the nation’s leading public academic health care system. We are committed to providing North Carolinians with the highest level of care. We are continually looking for new and innovative ways to improve the quality of care that we provide for patients across our state. And we are clearly making progress. I am pleased to say that the recently released U.S. News & World Report 2016-2017 Best Hospitals rankings confirm our commitment to quality and excellence.

UNC Hospitals was nationally ranked or recognized as high performing in 10 clinical categories listed in the U.S. News & World Report 2016-2017 Best Hospitals rankings. Four of our specialties were ranked highest in the state.

Across the state, our system performed well. UNC Hospitals, UNC REX Hospital and UNC High Point Regional Hospital ranked No. 2, No. 10 and No. 16, respectively, in the Best Hospitals rankings for North Carolina.

UNC Hospitals ranked higher in eight clinical categories compared with the 2015-2016 rankings, including Urology, Cancer, Diabetes and Endocrinology, Nephrology, as well as Gastroenterology and GI Surgery.

I will elaborate on just how extraordinary this recognition is. U.S. News & World Report rankings are among the most prestigious of their kind. This year’s rankings began with a pool of 4,667 hospitals representing virtually all U.S. nonfederal community facilities. Only 153 hospitals in the United States, across all 16 specialty categories, performed well enough to be nationally ranked in one or more specialties. The scores are established on the basis of issues like severity-adjusted mortality and patient volume as well as on the hospital’s reputation among specialist physicians.

As UNC Health Care continues expanding across the state, we have remained steadfast in our core beliefs and values. This unwavering commitment to strive for excellence is what enables us to provide the best possible care for the people of North Carolina. And these scores are a clear indication that we are making tremendous progress on the goals we have set.

For a full list of U.S. News & World Report 2016-2016 Best Hospitals rankings and UNC Hospitals recognition, click here.

Commemorating Seven Decades of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last week, I had the privilege of providing remarks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Public Health Grand Rounds – Seven Decades of Firsts with Seven CDC Directors. The event marked the 70th anniversary of the CDC. It gave former directors, including myself, an opportunity to reflect on the CDC’s great work in the past, its relevance and continued importance today, and its need to maintain public health in the future.

As the director of the CDC from 1990 to 1993, I saw tremendous change in public health. The CDC began cultivating partnerships with academia, public health agencies and the private sector. At the same time, the CDC started to face more complex challenges. In addition to its focus on communicable diseases, the CDC embraced its role as the nation’s prevention agency, formally adding “and Prevention” to its name. As the CDC has continued to change to address changing needs in public health, I am happy to say that, in my opinion, the CDC name and mission are still as strong as ever.

The focus on prevention was reflected in many of our efforts during my time as CDC director. For instance, in the early ’90s, the CDC funded prevention programs aimed at tackling the expansion of HIV/AIDS. In 1991, the CDC identified a sharp increase in cases of tuberculosis that were related to HIV infection and AIDS; in that same year, the CDC reported that the number of reported AIDS cases in the United States had reached 200,000. Recognizing that prevention activities were needed at the community level, the CDC funded five HIV/AIDS demonstration projects that extended prevention efforts to community sites and elicited the help of community residents and peer groups to motivate behavior change.

The CDC played critical roles in the past, and it continues to be a vital force for global public health today. Outbreaks of viral diseases such as Ebola in 2015 and Zika this year remind us of the important role that the CDC plays with regard to education and protection.

The CDC drives policy and action nationally and around the globe, as well as right here in North Carolina. It is a vital resource as we work to ensure the best patient outcomes for people across our state, and I am confident that the CDC will continue to be a global leader in disease control, prevention and protection.

MedServe: An Investment in our State

Investment in medical education is invaluable to the future of our state. That is why at the UNC School of Medicine, we work day in and day out to attract the best and brightest minds who will go on to provide top-quality care to patients across our state.

Recently, two medical and business school students from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke launched MedServe, a first-of-its-kind program that pairs 13 outstanding recent college graduates with primary care clinics in rural or underserved communities across North Carolina for two years of immersive service. Fellows kicked off their summers with a week of training at the UNC School of Medicine, where they gained practical skills and knowledge to help in their clinical roles.

Many people don’t realize it, but the UNC School of Medicine serves North Carolinians in all 100 counties of the state, reaching rural and underserved populations. However, this task is becoming more challenging as our population continues to grow. We are now the nation’s ninth most populous state, and we’re adding about 100,000 new residents each year. By 2030, that’s like adding another third of our current population.

MedServe is helping address this challenge. It’s increasing awareness for the importance of primary care, providing care to communities that need it most and providing vital experiences to future physicians. This is the kind of innovative and collaborative approach that will bring real improvements throughout our state.

At UNC, we constantly strive to provide empathetic, expert care to all North Carolinians. This is what we call complete care. I am thrilled that MedServe is taking part in our ambitious, yet necessary, mission.

To learn more about MedServe, click here.


Serving Patients Across North Carolina

In recent years, it has become harder for independent community hospitals to thrive on their own. This transition has resulted in significant and rapid growth for UNC Health Care.

A number of independent hospitals have asked us to assist them. Most recently, they have requested we manage their hospitals while they remain separate legal entities.

We have two criteria for deciding the communities in which we will partner:

  1. We only go where we are invited; and
  2. Any involvement we might have must be at least “budget neutral” for us.

At UNC Health Care, we are committed to serving patients across North Carolina. We recently forged new relationships with Wayne Memorial Hospital and Lenoir Memorial Hospital, which means our organization now includes 10 hospitals and hospital systems across the state. We are truly serving patients across North Carolina. This is right on target with our mission as the state’s health care system: to improve the health of all North Carolinians, regardless of their ability to pay.

While this growth makes good business sense and ties directly to our mission, to some, it may seem like a lot of growth in a short amount of time. However, I strongly believe that our expansion is good for our patients. When hospitals across the state ask us to partner with them, and the partnership can be accomplished in a way that is mutually beneficial, we will be there to help serve patients in the communities where they live.

I am extremely proud that we have had the opportunity to provide even more North Carolinians with the highest level of empathetic and expert care. And we will continue to do so, as long as it continues to benefit the people of our state.

Connect NC: An Investment in the Future

At UNC Health Care and the UNC School of Medicine, we are constantly working to improve our services for patients, our research and the way we train physicians to best meet our mission. However, in one area we are lagging behind.

At the UNC School of Medicine, Berryhill Hall is where our students train. Built more than 50 years ago, it served the needs of its time. But its auditorium-style classroom is antiquated, and it can no longer accommodate our anticipated class size of 230.

In recent years, teaching styles have changed. Our students now learn through collaborative teaching, and advanced technology is integrated into the classroom, mirroring the way that modern doctors should practice. Class size is also increasing. A larger class size is necessary to help meet the growing demand for physicians to serve the needs of our state.

Since 1879, the UNC School of Medicine has had the distinct privilege of training the next generations of physicians, clinicians, scientists and health professionals to serve North Carolinians. In fact, the UNC School of Medicine serves North Carolinians in all 100 counties of the state, reaching rural communities and underserved populations. That is something we are very proud of, but it also is a challenge, given the rapidly growing and aging population.

On March 15, North Carolina voters will decide on a proposed $2 billion bond package that would go to higher education, safety and parks, among other things. If passed, the bond would allocate $68 million toward renovating Berryhill Hall.

An up-to-date facility with advanced technology would help us attract today’s brightest minds, accommodate a larger class size and continue developing groundbreaking research.

To remain a leader in medicine and to continue serving the needs of our growing population, we need to provide an environment where today’s brightest minds can expand what is possible in medicine.

Please vote on March 15.


UNC Health Care on the Zika Virus

Across the state, researchers are ramping up efforts to combat the spread of the Zika virus, which was declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization on Monday. UNC Health Care’s top priority is the safety of our patients across the state. While no cases of this mosquito-borne disease have been reported in North Carolina, we are learning everything we can about the virus as quickly as possible so that we can help develop a solution.

Our hospitals across the state are following the CDC’s guidelines and recommending that pregnant women, and women planning to get pregnant, avoid traveling to affected areas, as the Zika virus is thought to cause microcephaly, a neurological disorder in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brains. UNC Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialists are offering consultations to pregnant women who have recently traveled to affected areas.

It is important to remember that the mosquitos carrying the virus are not active year-round in North Carolina. This may help reduce the rate of transmission in our state. However, if you plan to travel to affected areas, please take precautionary measures, such as using insect repellent (DEET is most effective), wearing long pants and sleeves, sleeping under mosquito netting in endemic areas and avoiding the outdoors during periods of peak mosquito activity.

The transmission of the Zika virus is extremely serious. We want North Carolinians to know that UNC Health Care is prepared for the safe care of patients with highly communicable diseases. We will continue to update our co-workers and the general public with relevant updates as they become available.

To learn more about the Zika virus, please click here.

An Investment in Funding and an Investment in Our Future

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on President Obama’s final State of the Union address. While there are certainly points of contention with any presidential address, this year I believe he emphasized one point we can all agree on. President Obama commended Congress for passing $2 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest increase in more than a decade. As we embark on 2016, I urge my colleagues to use this investment to tackle our greatest challenges in health and health care.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, we receive more NIH funding than any other entity in the state. This helps us produce treatments and discoveries that will improve health care for tomorrow. With this additional funding, we can seek new and better ways of doing things and challenging conventional wisdom is how we make progress. Take Aziz Sancar, professor at the UNC School of Medicine and Nobel Prize laureate. Along with his colleagues, Dr. Sancar unraveled how our cells fight back against DNA damage, a tremendous step toward helping us understand hereditary disorders and cancer.

President Obama also made a vow to use these resources to help America find a cure for cancer. This is a lofty, yet very important, goal. Along with my colleagues at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the School of Medicine, I am confident that we are well on our way. Thanks to a greater emphasis on medical research, we can further those efforts.

Today, I would like to celebrate the president’s emphasis on embracing change, innovation and research. We at UNC Health Care will continue our efforts to answer the president’s – and thousands of patients’ – call.

I have no doubt that we will. As the president so aptly put it, “…spirit of discovery is in our DNA.”

UNC Health Care’s New Year’s Resolution to North Carolina

Like many North Carolinians, we at UNC Health Care find it helpful to set resolutions, as they allow us to define, and then meet, our overarching goals. This year, we’ve resolved to cultivate existing partnerships, forge new ones with other organizations, and expand the physician base of UNC Health Alliance – all to provide North Carolinians with greater access to exceptional health care.

Last year, we worked with Cisco to open a state-of-the-art health center for employees and their families on the information technology company’s main campus in Research Triangle Park. Through this on-site clinic, UNC Physicians Network doctors coordinate care for Cisco employees and their dependents to improve overall health and keep costs down. Though this center has been open for only a few months, it is already exceeding expectations: On average, the clinic sees more than 35 patients daily.

Along with 10 other health systems, UNC Health Care is participating in Provider-Led and Patient-Centered Care LLC, which will allow the 1.9 million North Carolina residents on Medicaid to enroll in prepaid health plans, giving them access to high-quality care and more health choices than ever before.

Smart collaboration is a must for delivering outstanding care. We will continue to grow our existing partnerships and look for new partnerships that enable exceptional care across the state. Click here to learn more about our on-site health center at Cisco and here to learn more about Provider-Led and Patient-Centered Care LLC.