EVOLUTION AND TRANSFORMATION: Meharry Looks to Future by Remembering Heritage

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At Meharry Medical College, we teach health caring, dedicated to our larger goal: Worship of God through service to mankind.

NASHVILLE, TN — From the beginning of his presidency—and with an eye to Meharry Medical College’s sesquicentennial in 2026—James E. K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D. set in motion a series of priorities to advance the college—what he calls a state of “Evolution and Transformation.”

“Meharry is both a health care organization and an institution of higher education,” Dr. Hildreth said in his inaugural address last year, “and dramatic changes are occurring in both of these domains.” Dr. Hildreth quoted writer Henry Gibson to make his point:

“The future is already here…”

Accordingly, policies and practices are being considered and implemented to position Meharry to adapt to technological, sociological and public policy change in a proactive manner.

Meharry is developing a strategic plan for its 2026 sesquicentennial that includes input from more than 70 faculty, staff and students. The process envisions Meharry as a national leader in professional health workforce development; a provider of quality, compassionate health care for the communities we serve; and a source of relevant scientific and clinical research and health policy formulation and analysis.

Among the technology endeavors at the college, new emphasis in data acquisition, accumulation and analysis have begun through the development of the Meharry Data Science Center. The center has several objectives, including development of a curriculum to expose students to data science in medicine and research; funding pilot projects that will lead to major grants; development of possible initial projects in exposome, genome sequencing and precision medicine; provision of an anchor for data science research on campus; and development of M.S. and Ph.D. programs. The Data Science Center draws from more than 25 sources within the schools of medicine, dentistry and research to bring together data to allow aggregation, integration and analysis, particularly in support of clinical operations and public health.

“Data and data science are at the heart of precision medicine.” Dr. Hildreth said in his address. “At present there are many disparate data types and data streams in health care including lab results, claims and transactions, genomics data and patient’s personal data…Clearly data science and bioinformatics are now essential to having a robust research enterprise in an academic health science center,” he said.

Currently, data acquisition also takes on the form of “citizen science,” utilizing volunteers collecting information with the help of a smartphone app. The overlay of citizen-acquired data with existing publicly-available data sets can result in new analysis tools for public health issues including socioenvironmental and social determinants of health triggers for various chronic diseases.

Meharry is committed to conducting applied scientific research that will drive innovation as well as decrease—and ultimately eliminate—health disparities. The college’s efforts last year included a national conference and exciting developments on the HIV/AIDS research front, forging new progress in this vital research area.

Meharry is also at the forefront of 3D imaging technology for dental and medical education using a self-contained holographic headset that lets users interact with high-definition three-dimensional virtual models of anatomic and dental subjects. Incorporation of the latest technologies will position Meharry in a proactive posture rather than reactive.

Sociologically, Meharry Medical College looks to the future by focusing through its heritage, guided by its motto: Worship of God Through Service to Mankind.  Meharry still delivers approximately $30 million annually in uncompensated care. Out of approximately 7,000 practicing medical and dental alumni, 83 percent serve in underserved communities. Nearly 50 percent of medical school graduates match in primary care residencies where the greatest need for physicians exists. And, the faculty-supervised, student-run Meharry 12 South Community Clinic continues to benefit Nashville’s underserved with health care, and medical and dental students with clinical skill. Meharry’s commitment to service continues to position the college as second among 141 academic health science centers in the “social mission” of education.

To keep the college oriented in this direction, scholarship funds are especially important and initiatives are underway to raise the much-needed dollars. Alleviating the student debt burden for Meharry graduates results in more physicians and dentists following their hearts into primary care careers rather than being compelled by student debt into higher-paying specialties.

Meharry’s future commitment to serving the citizens of Tennessee is strong as well—of practicing Meharry medical and dental alumni, almost one in six works in the Volunteer State. And of last year’s graduating class from Meharry’s schools of medicine and dentistry, 51 percent elected to practice in Tennessee.

Finally, Meharry’s commitment to future doctors, dentists and scientific researchers is embodied in its relationships with two Nashville-area middle schools: Creswell Middle Prep School of the Arts and Haynes Middle Health/Medical Science Design Center. Through Meharry NOW and our Adopt-A-Schools program, students at those schools were motivated in their interest in science courtesy of 350 Meharry students, faculty and staff who volunteered in a day of service, leading students through science and health lessons, dental exploration, clinical research and public health. Twenty years from now, some of those middle schoolers hopefully will be Meharry graduates themselves.

Last year, Dr. Hildreth ended his inauguration speech by describing Meharry as a “beacon of hope.” Continuing the metaphor, he said “Over the next decade, that beacon will shine brighter and brighter continuing to attract amazing students of all races and gender, grateful patients and outstanding, highly committed faculty and staff.” Looking ahead, he said, the path forward will be well lit—“Lit by the beacon.”

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