From the Dean: Acclimating to a virtual world

This has been the first full week of study for the medical student class of 2025. Susan and I hosted a Welcome Reception for the class on Wednesday, but yet again this year it was virtual. Yesterday, the School hosted Family Day for the families of the students and I presented an overview of the UND SMHS and where we hope to go as an institution. The day ended with the pledging of the Oath of Hippocrates, the sacred vow that physicians (and future physicians!) have sworn to uphold since it was first conceived some 2,500 years ago. And today, I will be faculty preceptor for the students’ first patient case discussion. By the way, the patient – Ben – has volunteered (with his parents) to be the focus of the discussion for over a decade, since he was a boy. He’s now a man – wow, how time flies! Ben now is working in Montana, so the case discussion also will be done virtually.

It’s amazing how accustomed we’ve become to virtual events. The virtual world that has been accelerated by the pandemic has both negative and positive aspects. The negative aspects are obvious – most of us prefer face-to-face encounters. The in-person experience is especially important to students, as they have reminded us throughout the pandemic. So, the challenge has been to balance the desire for as much in-person experience as possible with the need to provide as safe an environment as is feasible. The School needs to be especially vigilant in this regard because many of the faculty – and almost all of the students – interact with patients, some of whom are especially vulnerable to the effects of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). Today, for example, I’m seeing patients in clinic (except for the session with Ben and the students) and I have a moral responsibility to not put my patients at increased risk.

Accordingly, we need to have continued vigilance as the pandemic winds down. And that means at least a modicum of virtual interactions going forward. As indicated above, there are some positive aspects related to the increased use of videoconferencing as a result of the pandemic. I, for example, now spend less time commuting to Grand Forks than before (we sold our condo in Grand Forks when we moved into University House during my stint as interim President). So, we no longer have a residence in Grand Forks, which means that I now commute whenever I’m on campus. The reduction in commuting time has afforded me the opportunity to increase my exercise time each week. That has been good for my body – and my mind. Thus, there are some advantages to the Zoom world we now are in.

What should we expect going forward? For students, faculty, and staff, I think we will see a continuation of the hybrid teaching approach we are using currently, with a mix of in-person and virtual events. I don’t anticipate that to change for the upcoming fall semester, nor for the mask requirement while in our medical facilities to change any time soon. For faculty and staff who may have been working (at least to some degree) in a virtual manner from home, I anticipate that flexibility to continue too. What I’ve emphasized to our leaders and supervisors are the following two precepts to guide decisions regarding workplace flexibility. Most importantly, our mission comes first. The School is charged with education, discovery of new knowledge, and service to the people of North Dakota. Those imperatives are primary. The second precept is that supervisors have the flexibility to work with faculty and staff to accommodate their wants and needs as well – as long as our mission is supported.

UND will, in the near future, be coming out with additional guidance regarding workplace arrangements for employees. Obviously, we will integrate that guidance into our approach. I expect that the two guiding principles will continue to be mission and flexibility. Happy employees are productive employees and productive employees maximize mission. I know from my own personal experience that the virtual world has not been all bad since it has afforded me more free time, although I wish my tennis game had improved more than it has despite having more time for practice!

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