Dean's Weekly Message

September 28, 2020

Dear colleague:

Our country had another tumultuous week raising questions about fairness and justice. The decision, announced last Wednesday by the Kentucky attorney general, that criminal homicide charges would not be pursued against the law enforcement officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment have ricocheted around the United States. Some members of the Anschutz Medical Campus community are expressing their concerns about that decision and more generally the direction of our country. Amid the uncertainty and vulnerability that people are feeling, I want to remind all members of the Anschutz Medical Campus community that we value your contributions. We see you and we support you. If you need help, the School of Medicine Office of Diversity and Inclusion has posted links and resources. Please reach out to others for help and to share your concerns. 

I want also to call attention to a statement from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) regarding a recent presidential executive order that aims to ban anti-discrimination training at federal contractors and grant recipients. AAMC President and CEO David J. Skorton, MD, and AAMC Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer David A. Acosta, MD, write, “While the executive order contains some elements that are universally agreed upon and with which we agree, it also exhibits a misunderstanding of most diversity and inclusion training programs and therefore will only further divide an already fragmented nation.” The University of Colorado School of Medicine’s anti-discrimination training programs make us stronger by focusing our attention on biases and teaching us to avoid such mistakes. The School of Medicine remains committed to being a diverse, inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist organization. 

Jean Abbott, MD, MH, professor emerita and faculty at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities, is the corresponding author of a Viewpoint article published September 21 by JAMA. She is co-author with Daniel Johnson, MD, national physician lead for palliative care at Kaiser Permanente’s Care Management Institute, and Matthew Wynia, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities. They call attention to examples of inadequate palliative care during earlier COVID-19 pandemic surges and offer recommendations to strengthen palliative care in any future surges. For example, they write, “Hospitals are not prisons, and patients and families should be allowed to undertake reasonable risks of visitation with dying loved ones, with the understanding that this exposure could result in potential illness among visitors or may entail subsequent quarantine.” They also call failures of government and health care systems to address surging needs for palliative care in the pandemic unconscionable. The article has special resonance as the U.S. toll of reported deaths surpassed 200,000 last week. COVID-19 is now the third-leading cause of death in the country. 

The State of Colorado Behavioral Health Task Force issued its blueprint for reform, Behavioral Health in Colorado: Putting People First, last week. The report calls for the creation of a Behavioral Health Administration to provide an infrastructure needed to deliver on its recommendations, which aim to improve access and affordability of behavioral health services. There is a substantial need for improved access to behavioral health care. The report cites a Colorado Health Institute survey that found 15 percent of respondents reported poor mental health in 2019, up from 12 percent in 2017. In addition, the survey found that 27 percent of adults said they, a loved one, or a close friend have been addicted to alcohol or drugs. Primarily due to stigma, some 95,000 Coloradans with a substance use disorder went without treatment in 2019. One key problem for the state of Colorado is that the $1.4 billion in federal and state funds spent on behavioral health services is distributed across at least 10 state agencies and over 75 programs. As a result, there is not a cohesive statewide approach to address the needs. In addition to the new Behavioral Health Administration, the state also calls for an expansion of tele-behavioral health services. Special thanks to C. Neill Epperson, MD, chair of psychiatry, who served on the task force. 

Angelo D’Alessandro, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics, received the 2020 National Blood Foundation Award for Innovative Research for his work on the role of adenosine signaling in the preservation of energy metabolism in stored erythrocytes. To conduct his research, Angelo developed high throughput omics methodologies and has supported research projects that involved more than 50 international colleagues. 

Michael A. Puente, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology, is the lead author of an article in JAMA Ophthalmology that calls into question a U.S. policy that prohibits corneal donation by men who have had sex with another man in the preceding five years. Michael and his co-authors surveyed the 65 eye banks in the United States and Canada, where the ban is 12 months, and found that the bans disqualified as many as 3,217 corneal donations that could have been available for vision-restoring surgery. The bans are more restrictive than in other countries and are not based on current science, which provides faster and more reliable HIV testing than when the U.S. ban was put in place in 1994. Michael and his co-authors report that there are no reported cases of HIV transmission from corneal transplants and that blood donation and solid organ transplants are allowed after shorter periods of abstinence. Michael is calling for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to shorten or remove the prohibitions on donations. 

Brandi Ring, MD, who has a volunteer appointment as a clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology, has been appointed by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) as a member of its Advisory Panel on Healthcare Delivery and Disparities. 

Peg Burnette, chief financial officer for Denver Health since 2004, celebrated her retirement last week. Peg has been a strong and effective leader at Denver Health since she joined the team in 1996. Under her financial leadership Denver Health grew from total assets of $153 million to $1.1 billion, while providing more than $6 billion in care to the uninsured. Last year, Peg was recognized by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce as one of the 25 most powerful women in business. We wish her a happy retirement. 

The Graduate Medical Education chief resident retreat was held virtually last week, with 55 chief residents participating. The goal of the program is to enhance leadership skills including team building, resilience, conflict resolution, and change management. Thanks to the faculty who led the retreat: Rita Lee, MD, Matthew Rustici, MD, Cleveland Piggott, MD, MPH, and Abigail Lara, MD. Also, thanks to the representatives from our affiliated hospitals for participating in a town hall discussion. 

The SPARK | REACH Colorado program is accepting applications for its fourth cohort of participants. The program selects translational projects on drugs, medical devices, and diagnostic tools and provides funding up to $200,000, industry mentorship, and training on product development and entrepreneurship. Applications are due Wednesday, October 21. The SPARK Colorado program, founded in 2018, became one of the National Institutes of Health-funded REACH hubs in 2019 and was awarded $4 million to accelerate the commercialization of CU Anschutz Medical Campus technologies. Details are available on the SPARK | REACH website

UCHealth has selected the Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board (COMIRB) to provide review and oversight of UCHealth human participant research effective Oct. 1. COMIRB oversees human participant research for the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus and its affiliated hospitals, including University of Colorado Hospital. COMIRB provides timely reviews, customer service, and resources for researcher consultation, training, and guidance. The UCHealth IRB will be allowed to sunset effective September 30. Tom Campbell, MD, associate dean for adult health research for the School of Medicine and chief clinical research officer for UCHealth, said a transition plan has been set to assure regulatory needs continue to be met, human research participants continue to be protected, and investigators receive exceptional service. 

Condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Gary Melton, PhD, professor of pediatrics and associate director for community development and social policy at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. Gary died September 20. In recent years, Gary had been a visiting professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia. Gary’s career started in the 1980s at Boy’s Town in Nebraska. He moved to Clemson University, where he began the Strong Communities for Children program, a neighborhood-based effort to support children and families. Gary’s distinguished contributions earned awards from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, the American Psychological Association (four times, a notable achievement), the American Psychological Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America. The author of more than 350 publications, he is the founding editor of the International Journal of Child Maltreatment Research, Policy and Practice. Former Dean Richard Krugman, MD, said: “Gary was an eloquent speaker, a prolific writer, and an incredible thoughtful advocate for children. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.” A graveside service for Gary was held on Sunday in North Carolina. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the resourcefulness and resilience of all, so it is particularly gratifying to see examples of good work among members of our campus community. This past summer, when their own scholarly plans were disrupted, three School of Medicine students created a summer camp about COVID-19 for middle school students in the Denver Public Schools. Medical students Evan Cornish, Boris Stepanyuk, and Rouna Mohran worked with mentor and director of the Global Health Track, Madiha Abdel-Maksoud, MD, PhD, MSPH​, to develop a curriculum on the science of the coronavirus and the mental health issues raised by the pandemic. Our students turned a summer of sour lemons into lemonade, not just for themselves, but for others. “What I like about their project is that most of the scholarly MSAs that I mentored before benefited the medical students only or primarily, but not this one,” said Madiha. “They were able to provide real service to our community while still fulfilling their academic requirements.” 

Mackenzie Shribbs, MD, instructor in emergency medicine, puts the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in perspective in an essay she posted on Medium. Mackenzie, a captain in the U.S. Air Force currently in our Global Health Fellowship and pursuing a master of public health degree, writes that military service and medical care during this pandemic share a purpose of taking care of others. “In the military and medicine, we know there will be hardships and volunteer anyway.” Mackenzie, who was named a Tillman Scholar earlier this year, reminds us to keep up the fight:  “Do not be a ‘Fobbit’ — someone at a forward operating base (FOB) who sits in their room all day watching movies. Instead, be that person who maintains social distancing but reaches out to others to say ‘I’m here for you. We got this. Let’s fight this.’”

Have a good week,

John J. Reilly, Jr., MD
Richard D. Krugman Endowed Chair
Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and
Dean, School of Medicine

The Dean’s weekly message is an email news bulletin from John J. Reilly, Jr., MD, Dean of the CU School of Medicine, that is distributed to inform University of Colorado School of Medicine faculty members, staff, students and others about issues pertaining to the School’s mission of education, research, clinical care and community service.  For clinical news and patient stories from UCHealth, please visit UCHealth Today

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