On March 10, the Nashville Health Care Council hosted a member discussion with Jeff Balser, the President CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. This virtual event was the latest installment of the Council’s “Health Care Brass Tacks” series, which invites Council board members and C-suite health care leaders to discuss their perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic and its overall impact on the health care industry.
VUMC is a world-renowned academic medical center that also plays a significant role in Nashville and the region. As the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee, nearly 33,000 people are employed at the medical center. Of the organization’s $5 billion in annual revenue, nearly $1 billion supports research, training and innovation, an engine that was magnified as VUMC emerged as a global leader in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the nation shut down in the spring of 2020, VUMC had already been working to prepare for COVID-19. In fact, one of the world’s foremost researchers of coronaviruses, Dr. Mark Denison, is a member of the VUMC team. The Denison Lab has been funded for more than 30 years by the National Institutes of Health to investigate coronaviruses, such as SARS, MERS and COVID-19. Since Dr. Denison began studying coronaviruses in 1984, his lab has made several important discoveries in their biology, and in creating antivirals and vaccines. In 2020, Denison’s lab and other VUMC departments received funding from the Dolly Parton COVID Research Fund.
“The Denison Lab led the development of the antiviral remdesivir, which is one of the few treatments known to be effective against the virus,” said Balser. “Dr. Denison was also was the first to show human antibody response to the Moderna vaccine.”
VUMC played an enormous role as an employer, major health care provider and community leader during the pandemic.
“None of us have ever been through anything like this. I felt like an intern all over again because it was all new. But in a crisis, you resort to your core values, and Vanderbilt did just that,” said Balser. “We love this community and would do anything to protect it.”
The organization committed to keeping staff employed, hiring nurses and giving pay-raises, which was counter to what the industry was doing. They ramped-up efforts to support clinical staff with increased access to behavioral health services. Recognizing that COVID-19 would have a significant impact on populations already disadvantaged through health disparities, VUMC included Chief Equity Officer Dr. Consuelo H. Wilkins in its pandemic response command center. Her voice was instrumental in making decisions that would affect staff members and the community at large.
Looking ahead, VUMC is determined to take the experiences from COVID-19 and use them to move health care forward in the areas of informatics and personalized medicine. Informatics has been a longtime area of expertise for of VUMC, and while it sounds technical on the surface, facile transfer and use of medical data is the key to revolutionizing health care. For example, VUMC’s REDCap platform was used to capture medical information from the first drive-through COVID-19 testing center in Seattle. Twenty states are now using REDCap for COVID testing, vaccine, and other information management needs.
“We all want to better understand what genetic makeup means for treating disease, and you can only do that by understanding and better utilizing healthcare information,” said Balser. “Personalized health is the future of medicine, and we are building an infrastructure for this capability from the ground up.”