Q&A

Medical school’s move downtown

By S.A. UNGER, ELLEN GOLDBAUM and RACHEL STERN

Published September 12, 2017

When Michael E. Cain was recruited to UB in 2006 to serve as dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, he was looking for new challenges. For the previous 31 years, he had been on the faculty at Washington University, where, among other things, he established and led an internationally recognized Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory and served as chief of the Cardiovascular Division.

At UB, Cain found the new challenges he had sought, and now, 11 years later, he can reflect on a series of notable accomplishments, with the capstone being the opening of the new medical school building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. This fall, faculty, staff and students will begin the transition downtown, culminating in a formal grand opening of the building during the spring 2018 semester.

Cain was an early proponent of moving the medical school downtown, an idea championed by then-President John B. Simpson, as well as his successor, President Satish K. Tripathi. Once this vision was set into motion, Cain began the enormous task of organizing the infrastructure necessary to make it happen, with the goal of integrating the school’s educational, clinical and research components.

With the new medical school building set to open this fall, Cain talked with UBNow about the move and his goals for the school in the years ahead.

Why did the medical school have to move?

MC: UB’s medical school has been located on the South Campus since 1953. Some buildings are now more than 60 years old, with significantly outdated classrooms and laboratories. These facilities don’t allow faculty and students to achieve the world-class education and research they aspire to and don’t foster the cross-disciplinary synergies that are so critical to medicine today.

This made it increasingly difficult to attract top faculty and students. Since breaking ground for the new building, we have seen a major improvement in our ability to do both these things.

Another key factor in the decision to move the school is the fact that it’s not feasible to expand the current facilities — and expansion of medical schools is a national and regional necessity today. Physician shortages in our region range from moderate to quite severe in some specialties, including primary care. With the opening of the new building, we are increasing our class size 25 percent, which is in line with recommendations by the Association of American Medical Colleges, and will translate to more doctors serving the region.

How does the new medical school impact our community?

MC: The new medical school building will greatly strengthen our region’s academic health center, a consortium of affiliated teaching hospitals and health care systems. Academic health centers combine medical education with superior clinical care and research to provide the most advanced care to patients.

Moving the school downtown in close proximity to its clinical and research partners — including Buffalo General Medical Center, the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, the Gates Vascular Institute, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute and UBMD Physicians’ Group practices in Conventus — will foster synergies that will expand and improve health care in our community.

Can you talk more about how patients will benefit?

MC: Physicians in an academic health center see their role in the community as two-pronged: first, they are researchers who seek to discover new ways to diagnose and treat illnesses; second, they are clinicians and educators who can rapidly translate these discoveries into the care they provide to patients. Patients receiving care through UBMD Physicians’ Group — the medical school’s clinical faculty practice plan — have access to clinical trials for new drugs and other cutting-edge treatments that represent the newest and best medical approaches, often years before they reach the population as a whole.

Does the new building help fill gaps in clinical expertise in Buffalo?

MC: Yes, the new building is key to our being able to recruit and retain world-class faculty who have expertise in medical specialties that the region has sorely lacked in recent years. These faculty are establishing new clinical services and training programs so that Western New Yorkers do not have to leave town for specialty care. UBMD physicians provide the most advanced care available to the people of Western New York.

Will the Western New York economy benefit from the new building?

MC: The new medical school building is the largest medical education building under construction in the nation. Once open, it will bring more than 2,000 UB faculty, staff and students to downtown Buffalo daily. Dozens more faculty and physicians are moving downtown to offices in the new Conventus medical office building, where 12 UBMD medical practices are now located.

All of this signals a major change for the neighborhood, significantly boosting population density in the heart of the city and providing new opportunities for retail and housing development. More students will need to find housing and other services in the area. For example, the new building was designed without a main dining facility so that area restaurants and stores will realize an economic benefit.

The move will also strengthen the biomedical sector as a catalyst for the region’s economic transformation. New medical innovations are expected to spin off businesses and create jobs as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus continues to grow. The move also builds on UB’s many successful research investments in biomedicine downtown, including UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Institute for Healthcare Informatics and the Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics.

Can you give an example of how the new building will impact medical education?

MC: With modular state-of-the-art learning environments, the new building embodies an innovative teaching philosophy, one that’s increasingly being adopted by medical schools. Instead of traditional classrooms with rows of seats facing forward, the rooms are instead constructed so that everyone in the class faces each other in a circle or can gather into small groups. White boards and electronic projection equipment are readily available throughout each room. This means that at any moment, any student in the class can stand up, make a presentation and drive the discussion.

It’s a very exciting and collaborative way to learn and it’s especially suitable for a medical school. These physical differences dramatically increase how much students are invested in the learning process. On any given day, any one of them could end up sharing material with the class and providing instruction.

How do you see these changes affecting the school’s culture for students — the impressions they take away as graduates?

MC: The new building will provide students in all four years with a shared academic home. That’s not currently the case because students spend their first two years in classrooms on the South Campus and their last two years doing clinical training at local hospitals. In the new building downtown, medical students will not only have more chances to collaborate and share ideas with one another, but they also will be much closer to the clinical and research centers that make up the Buffalo academic health center. To say that there will be many more opportunities for synergies and collegiality, now and into the future, is probably an understatement.

What are some of your priorities for the next few years?

MC: It is imperative that we look at ways to support programmatic initiatives for the school and to attract and retain leaders who can drive and fully implement these initiatives. We have a new building, and now we need to redouble our efforts to find ways to enhance the school’s academic mission. That means having funds to endow chairs and professorships in order to attract top physician-scientists who can bring their clinical-research programs to Buffalo. This type of momentum entices young physicians to train with us and stay and practice in our community.

Also, we will be training 36 additional students each year, so if we want to continue to attract the best, brightest and most diverse students, it’s imperative that we increase scholarship funds.

In April 2019, we will have a site visit by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education — the LCME — the accrediting body for medical schools in our country. In anticipation of this visit, priorities include reviewing and updating medical school policies, and implementing a strategic plan for medical curriculum and a system for continuous quality improvement of the curriculum.

We have made a commitment to the LCME to increase the size of our faculty to 860 full-time members by 2020 to meet the increased teaching needs of our larger class size of 180 students. So in the next two years, a priority will be to add approximately 80 new faculty members. Again, key to this is being able to attract top talent to endowed chairs and professorships. These individuals can then lead faculty recruitment efforts for their respective departments and programs.

You have been a strong advocate for increasing diversity in our faculty and student body. Can you talk more specifically about your goal in this area?

MC: My goal is to make sure that our medical school does in fact look like America.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Margarita Dubocovich, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and David Milling and Charles Severin in the offices of Medical Education and Admissions — along with members of the admissions committee — we have made strides in increasing the number of women and those traditionally underrepresented in medicine — Native Americans, Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans — in our student body and on our faculty.

Through curricula changes, through partnerships with associations in the community and by increased grant support that actually deals with health care disparities, I want to ensure that we continue to be involved in proactive efforts aimed at increasing diversity, not only in our school, but in the delivery of health care in our community.

What do you feel is the medical school’s lasting legacy in the community?

MC: The lasting legacy of the 171-year-old Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is that it is our community’s medical school.

The new building helps ensure that the school will continue to play an integral role in the health of our community by providing a world-class home for talented faculty who will educate generations of physicians and biomedical scientists, provide the most advanced care possible and discover new or improved treatments.

Given its deep, historical influence on the growth and development of our community, it’s only fitting that the school is moving back to its roots on Main and High streets, where it will anchor an academic health center that will serve Western New York — and beyond — well into the future.