On October 20, the Nashville Health Care Council hosted a member discussion with Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College, the nation’s largest private, independent, historically black academic health sciences center. 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. Hildreth spoke with Council President Hayley Hovious about vaccine research, health disparities and the outlook for Meharry’s future.
A renowned researcher in HIV and AIDS science, Hildreth’s robust background in the study of virulent diseases has made him a trusted voice in sharing information about COVID-19 with the Nashville community. When asked to compare study of HIV and AIDS with COVID-19, he explained that it is comparing apples to oranges.
“HIV is a virus the likes of which we have never seen, which is why it has been so difficult to develop a vaccine. HIV strains mutate so quickly that it is difficult to create memory cells to fight it,” he said. “Luckily, COVID-19 does not mutate as quickly. Because of this, and because of the advanced technology and collaboration available, I am confident we will have a vaccine soon.”
Hildreth is so confident in the scientists developing a COVID-19 vaccine that he has signed up to personally participate in the initial vaccine trial. He pointed out that minority communities are often left out of the research and development process. At the same time, minority populations often have a lack of trust in their health care providers. In order to encourage vaccine acceptance, trusted opinion leaders need sufficient information to make the right decisions and spread the word about healthy choices.
“My primary concern is making sure the vaccine is absolutely safe and will cause no harm. The scientists at the pharmaceutical companies, the NIH and the review committees have worked their whole lives in this field. I know them personally and trust their integrity to put safety first,” said Hildreth.
In addressing health disparities, it is well-known that access to health care services is a relatively small factor in a person’s overall health. Social determinants – where and how someone lives – have a much greater influence on health. Hildreth said that investing in public health initiatives to improve social determinants could lead to better health outcomes at a fraction of the current $3.5 trillion that the United States currently spends on health care.
Looking to the future for Meharry Medical College, Hildreth is in the middle of carrying out an ambitious strategic plan for the organization. Priorities include expanding class sizes, outreach and partnerships, while executing a robust and diverse business model. He has created novel programs locally, nationally and internationally to bring Meharry’s offerings to those in need and strengthen the school’s impact.
Last month, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded $34 million to Meharry to help increase the number of black doctors in the U.S. by significantly reducing their debt burden. Over the next four years, the funds will provide scholarships for eligible medical students with financial need, many of whom have faced increased financial pressures because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world needs more of what Meharry has to offer, and we look forward to expanding our important work in medical and research education,” Hildreth said.