From the Dean

The UND SMHS has three fundamental missions: to educate health care providers, especially individuals destined to deliver care to the citizens of the state; to discover new scientific knowledge that benefits North Dakotans; and to serve the people of the state. Of all of the institutions of higher education in North Dakota, only our School has its purpose (as outlined above) clearly stated in the North Dakota Century Code, the codified laws of the state (NDCC 15.52.01).

As you can see, the discovery of new knowledge through research and scholarship is an important component of the professional activities of our faculty, staff, and even students. One measure frequently used to assess the productivity of research activities at an institution is the amount of external funding the faculty and staff have garnered to support their discovery efforts. In the case of the SMHS, this turns out to be a lot of money–about a quarter of our total budget! The single largest sponsor of those research efforts is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where the competition for those federal dollars is intense. But despite the increasingly challenging funding environment, the School’s researchers have increased the amount of funding received by the SMHS by about 5 percent/year over the past decade, meaning about a 50 percent increase since 2009. That is a wonderful and amazing statistic!

The logical question that follows is, “How can we do even better?” It turns out that the big NIH grant awards tend to go to established investigators, meaning faculty typically in their 40s or older. But what are some of the key factors involved in getting younger faculty involved in successful research endeavors? The NIH itself has studied this question, and scientists there recently published an informative article about one crucial factor: the importance of a junior scientist having a mentor. In a study published in the journal Academic Medicine this past December, the NIH found that young investigators were about 60 percent more likely to receive one of its coveted R01 grants if earlier in their careers they received a so-called K award that requires the junior investigator to be paired with a mentor.

Accordingly, we work hard to expose our younger faculty to more senior investigators who can provide guidance and scientific mentoring. But in view of the clear message from this recent study, I think we need to emphasize the importance of scientific mentoring even more, especially as the School aims to further expand its research portfolio. Under the leadership of Senior Associate Dean for Medicine and Research Dr. Marc Basson, the School has a variety of programs designed to aid promising investigators, and we plan to augment our current catalog of programs with even more. In that way, the School will help support Goal 4 of the OneUND Strategic Plan that is focused on expanding the university’s research presence (“Enhance discovery at a level consistent with most research-intensive universities (Carnegie R1).”

Why is research and discovery so important? Because it is mainly though research that we improve our delivery of health care to the people of the state. In my own field of cardiology, for example, the mortality rate from a heart attack has fallen from about 25 percent when I was in training to around 5 percent currently. The main factor that accounts for this dramatic improvement in outcomes is the modern approach that we use to manage patients with heart attacks, including novel medicines (like so-called clot busters) and procedures (like stents for blocked heart arteries). As a consequence, the overall mortality from heart disease and stroke has declined in the U.S. by impressive amounts–from 2005 until 2015 for example, the annual death rate due to heart disease declined by more than a third!

The School is proud of its research efforts to date, and plans to be even more successful in the years to come.

Finally, thanks are in order to Drs. Julie Blehm, retired associate dean of our southeast campus in Fargo, and Robert Olson, clinical professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, who discussed provider depression and suicide at Dean’s Hour yesterday in our Charles H. Fee, MD Auditorium. It was wonderful to see the standing room only crowd for this important topic. Thanks also to the faculty and students who helped make this event possible, especially medical student Heather Kaluzniak, Dr. Jane Dunlevy, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and SMHS Wellness Advocate Michelle Montgomery. Your efforts go a long way toward getting all of us to discuss the often sensitive subject of provider mental health, but we’re all better off for it.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
UND Vice President for Health Affairs
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences