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Vol. LXII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
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New UMDNJ President William Owen Opens State of Health Care Series

Ellen Gilbert

A three-part series on “The Health Enterprise in New Jersey,” sponsored by the Policy Research Institute for the Region and Princeton University’s Molecular Biology Department, began last week with a talk by University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) President William F. Owen, Jr. His topic was “The State of Health Care in New Jersey and the Role of the Public Medical University.”

The series, which is advertised as “intended for scholars, leaders, experts, and practitioners,” addresses “various aspects of the health enterprise in the state, with a particular emphasis on education, access, quality, and research.” Last Thursday’s program took place in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall.

UMDNJ, the nation’s largest free-standing public health sciences university, was, for several years prior to Mr. Owen’s arrival in 2007, the focus of several investigations concerning over-reimbursement of Medicaid fees. The Memphis native’s appointment was hailed as an opportunity for the University to reassert its stature as a leader among the 124 academic health centers in the U.S.

Mr. Owen interpreted UMDNJ’s official seal, with its representations of service, teaching, and discovery, as reflecting what he sees as the mission of every public medical university: education, clinical care, and research. He used a number of amusing images in his power point presentation, and in this instance a tricycle was replaced by a “big wheel” bike with two smaller wheels behind, to reflect the imbalance that often occurs in trying to achieve these goals. The Mayo Clinic, for example, is heavily weighted toward clinical care, he said, while Harvard’s medical center emphasizes research. Nor should functioning units within a center compete, said Mr. Owen, who used an image of a turtle with two heads to illustrate the inherent problems of a hospital at odds with the medical school associated with it.

Citing Adam Smith on the positive outcome of economic competition, Mr. Owen said he believed in an entrepreneurial role for academic health centers. He espoused “controlled risk taking,” and “revenue diversification” as ways of becoming less dependent on state aid. Sources of income, he suggested, might be expanded tuition and fees, increased clinical site-generated revenue, and tuition-based programs on life-long health for the general public.

Improving the health of the workforce was very much on Mr. Owen’s mind as he described the “societal value chain” in which medical centers find themselves. Since the cost of insuring workers determines the location of plants, he said, it makes sense to improve their health, and, consequently, “the economic attractiveness of the state,” by striving to minimize disorders like obesity, diabetes, and asthma. Noting the disparity in infant mortality rates in New Jersey, where the numbers increase significantly as one travels south, Mr. Owen said he would like to “end the caste system” that currently exists by identifying and rewarding “great practitioners,” so that provider behavior, rather than location, determines the quality of health care.

Probably responding to UMDNJ’s recent history of unsavory revelations, Mr. Owen emphasized the importance of accountability, saying that academic health centers should “welcome increased scrutiny.” He endorsed measuring a center’s success by its social accomplishments as well as its economic achievements, and encouraged the big business practice of embracing process improvements. “UMDNJ is going to show up very differently in the future,” he commented, adding that he welcomes the opportunity to work his colleagues in academia.

Forthcoming talks in the “Health Enterprise in New Jersey” series include “Access to Universal Health Care: New Jersey, The Nation and the Globe,” on September 12, and “Health Care for Children: Challenges in Access and Quality,” on October 17.

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