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Educating Tomorrow’s Health Workforce

The Joy of Molding Young Minds

Dr. Lauree Thomas
Dr. Lauree Thomas

As a child growing up in rural Mississippi, Dr. Lauree Thomas had little in the way of medical role models. In fact, until her first clinic visit at 18, her only experience with care providers was the health department officials who passed out sugar cubes dotted with polio vaccine to area schoolchildren.

But Thomas learned everything she needed to know about service and compassion from her mother—a woman who, in addition to raising 12 of her own, tended to half the children in their small, povertystricken community and often invited whole families to sleep in their home because they had nowhere else to go.

“My mother taught us that if you do something for someone else, you’re always blessed,” Thomas says.

That life lesson, combined with an early talent and passion for science, led her into medicine and her chosen field of geriatrics. She spent 11 years focused almost exclusively on her patients, often working up to 100 hours a week, and always responding, “I’m on my way,” even if the call came in the predawn hours.

But as much as she enjoyed the “priceless sensation of saving a life,” Thomas felt a strong tug toward medical education administration—in part because she considers it a “joy and privilege to mold young minds,” and in part because she can recruit more minorities to the field, help them succeed in school and send them back out as doctors into medically underserved areas. Thomas came to UTMB in August 2001 and she approaches her role as associate dean for student affairs with as much zeal as she did her physician role. She is also a driving force behind many of the dramatic changes that have taken place in UTMB’s medical education program.

Moving from a traditional to an integrated curriculum involved rethinking virtually every aspect of the program. Are subjective measures, such as a student’s record of public service, important in recruiting? Can a student with a lower-than-average MCAT be successful in medical school? Are students really ready to see patients in their first year? Is experiential learning an effective teaching tool?

The answer, says Thomas, is yes. UTMB students see patients their first year, compared with the third year at most medical schools. Much of their training and testing is problem-based, performed in real or simulated clinic settings rather than at a desk with pen and paper. They consistently score above the national average and lead the state on the first step of the medical licensure exam.

In her first years at UTMB, Thomas earned a reputation for being hard-nosed by teaching aspiring doctors that their personal lives couldn’t come before their training. Her philosophy? If you know you have an exam, don’t schedule a vacation or a C-section for the same day. “Medicine is more than a job,” she says. “It requires discipline, sacrifice, a commitment to lifelong learning and to making a difference in the lives of others and to the world.” Whether it’s making a patient’s eyes light up herself or helping students who share her passion become skilled and compassionate doctors, Lauree Thomas continues to do just that.

A year after the 1900 Storm devastated Galveston Island and threatened the very existence of the University of Texas Medical Department, Dean Allen J. Smith vowed that the state’s first medical center would “stay while Texas stands.”

The fact that these words apply today—less than two years after a massive hurricane again called UTMB’s future into question—is a powerful testament to the spirit, tenacity and skill of the university community, and to the unparalleled support of alumni and friends.

Hurricane Ike flooded more than 1 million square feet of space, damaging classrooms and destroying simulation equipment. It hammered Old Red, the symbolic heart and soul of the campus, decommissioning the century-old amphitheater in which generations of students have observed anatomy dissections. Scientists lost lab space and research. And faculty and students, many of whom suffered damage to their homes, were displaced for weeks or months.

But despite Mother Nature’s worst, we are proud to say that UTMB’s education enterprise is not only back on track, it is thriving.

Taking Educational Excellence to New Heights

Since its founding, UTMB has educated more Texas health professionals than any other university. Our graduates—including the largest number of Texas Medical Association presidents from a single institution—have helped shape the future of health and health care as leaders of the state’s and nation’s premier professional associations. Multiple proof points speak to the success of our innovative approach to health sciences curricula and to our long-standing commitment to caring for the most vulnerable among us. We recognize the imperative to increase enrollment in order to provide Texas with the health professionals needed to care for a population that is growing and to address those diseases associated with a population that continues to age.

Match Day ceremony, 2009
Match Day ceremony, 2009

We also understand the importance of providing these gifted and passionate minds with facilities that advance their training. In sum, when it comes to educating those who will transform the treatment of illness and injury and provide the very best in patient care, UTMB knows no equal.

  • UTMB’s schools of medicine, nursing, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences celebrated their commencements on schedule, graduating 737 scientists and care providers.
  • Equally significant, we have more qualified applicants for our medical, nursing and health professions programs than we have openings:
  • Our medical and nursing students continue to excel, passing national licensing exams at a rate that exceeds the national average. In fact, for the past four years, UTMB medical students have posted the highest first-time pass rate of any medical school in Texas on Step 1 of the national medical licensure exam.
  • UTMB students continue to serve society’s most vulnerable, in particular through their work in flagship programs such as St. Vincent’s House in Galveston and Frontera de Salud in Brownsville. Our time-honored commitment to the medically underserved was recently recognized when the Association of American Medical Colleges named UTMB one of three finalists for the prestigious Spencer Foreman Award for Outstanding Community Service.
  • The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools voted to reaffirm UTMB’s accreditation status, citing in particular a program (“synergy”) designed to provide students in all four health sciences schools with opportunities to learn the principles of patientcentered care and to practice together in settings similar to those they will encounter after graduation.
  • The School of Allied Health Sciences named a new dean and officially became the School of Health Professions.
  • UTMB’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences established a Presidential Scholars’ program to expand recruitment of the best and brightest young scientific minds. An Office of Postdoctoral Affairs was also established to further recruitment of talented postdoctoral fellows and to prepare postdoctoral scientists for successful careers as independent investigators.
  • New academic programs include doctorates in rehabilitation science, occupational therapy and clinical laboratory sciences, and a doctorate in nursing practice has received initial approval. The School of Medicine curriculum now features tracks in global health, aerospace medicine, rural health and bilingual medicine; a public health track will launch during the coming academic year.
  • UTMB’s Academy of Master Teachers numbers 39 members from each of its four schools. The honorary service organization recognizes the “best of the best” educators and provides all faculty with development opportunities ranging from education symposia and grand rounds to innovation grants and mentoring. Members serve three-year terms and are designated University of Texas System Distinguished Teaching Professors.
  • Four UTMB faculty were inducted into the University of Texas Academy of Health Science Education. This brings to 21 the number of our faculty selected by peers statewide for advancing health sciences knowledge and innovation. Only UT Health Science Center at Houston has more members, with 22.
  • UTMB launched a $5 million project that integrates student administrative resources and provides a powerful portal interface and reporting tool for students, faculty, leaders and administrators alike. Modules include recruiting and admissions, enrollment, academic records, financial aid and student financials.

Looking Forward

This spring, UTMB’s School of Nursing celebrated its 120th anniversary and the School of Medicine will celebrate its 120th commencement. In the coming years, we will focus on substantial renovation and expansion of our education and research space. On increasing enrollment, particularly among nursing and health professions students to help Texas and the nation address a growing shortage of skilled caregivers. And on hiring the faculty needed to inspire and train tomorrow’s care providers and scientists.