Last fall, President Renu Khator appointed Dr. Stephen J. Spann to the position of Planning Dean for the proposed University of Houston Medical School. During his one-year term, Dr. Spann will help research and prepare an academically desirable and financially feasible program that complements what Houston already offers in the health arena. Spann, who holds both an M.D. and M.B.A., is a seasoned health care administrator and medical educator who brings a wealth of experience to the University. Spann shared his background and ideas for the medical school.
What is your background?
I’m a family physician. I went to medical school at Baylor College of Medicine and completed a residency in family medicine at Duke University Medical Center. Starting out, I spent four years as a country doctor in rural Arkansas and North Carolina. I was interested in improving health care in rural communities, because there was, and still is, a shortage of physicians and health care in those communities, and I thought practicing in rural areas without a lot of resources would be the ultimate challenge. I did everything — cradle-to-grave, womb-to-tomb medicine. Medical students and residents rotated through our practice, so I was already involved in training young doctors at that time. I’ve spent most of my career in medical education.
I left rural practice to become a full-time faculty member at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, where I taught for eight years. I spent the next seven years at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where I was chair of the Department of Family Medicine. From there, I went to Baylor College of Medicine and was chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine for 16 years, as well as senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs for two of those years. I spent the last two and a half years working in the United Arab Emirates as chief medical officer of Tawam Hospital, which is a tertiary care teaching hospital managed by Johns Hopkins Medicine International in the city of Al Ain. At Tawam, I led a large medical staff but also taught residents and medical students in the hospital and local medical school.
Along the way, I got my M.B.A. at The University of Texas at Dallas. There are a lot of business aspects to medicine, so I wanted more formal business training. I’ve used what I learned in that program every day since then.
What are your thoughts about the University’s plan to open a medical school?
It’s a great opportunity to harness the broad expertise at UH. We have health professional training in nursing, pharmacy, social work and optometry, but other colleges also can make a big contribution to medical training and research, such as engineering, law, business and others. Most medical schools in Texas are not on a university campus, so the chance to be part of a broader university offers great opportunities for collaboration in both teaching and research.
We can establish a new and distinctive medical school that addresses the health and health care needs of communities in our area that have significant health disparities. We can train the next generation of physicians in an innovative way with a focus on the health care delivery sciences, which include health informatics, quality of care, patient safety, population health management and team-based health care.
UH presents an opportunity to teach new physicians how to work in interdisciplinary teams and have them involved in partnering with communities and community leaders.
This will be the next generation of physician leaders, improving health care in our city, state and country, by transforming the way we deliver care to make it higher quality and more cost-effective, patient-centric and team-based.
What kind of impact do you envision it will have on the community?
We hope this medical school would result in an improvement in the health and health care of communities in our area and the population at large and that we’d have a higher number of students choosing careers in primary care and underserved care than most medical schools. We also hope to attract and train more physicians from underrepresented minorities in medicine, because we need our physician workforce to better mirror the ethnic composition of the population. As an example, 40 percent of Texas’ population is Hispanic, while only 10 percent of our doctors are. There are many culturally sensitive aspects to health care. Another impact would be to develop innovative and new ways to take better care of patients and discover new methods of diagnosis and treatment, thereby providing better access to care.
What are your goals for your one-year term?
As the planning dean, I will develop the initial plan for the medical school that will include a broad outline of the curriculum to help us understand our needs for faculty, staff, facilities and other kinds of resources to inform a budget and business plan. We also will do philanthropic fundraising, as well as educate the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and our state legislators about what we’re trying to do, why this school will make a difference and why it’s important, so we can get legislative approval.
Would you like to share any other thoughts about the proposed medical school?
I’m optimistic we’re going to move forward and that it’s going to be a great success. We’re hoping to admit the first students in 2019. We will train medical students to be undifferentiated physicians, so our graduates will be able to choose whatever specialty they want. There is a shortage of primary care doctors in America and Texas, with our state ranking 47 out of 50 states in terms of the primary care physician to population ratio. So, hopefully their exposure to primary care and community health will be very robust and many of them will choose to practice in a primary care specialty, perhaps in an underserved community, be that rural or urban. But some of our graduates will become neurosurgeons, and that’ll be great, too.