October 5, 2007

Riley outlines expansive, bold future for Meharry

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Wayne Riley, M.D., has a bold vision for Meharry Medical College. (photo by Neil Brake)

Riley outlines expansive, bold future for Meharry

Wayne Riley, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., began his term as the 10th president and first chief executive officer of Meharry Medical College in January, succeeding John Maupin, D.D.S., who served in that role for 12 years before exiting in June for the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Before coming to Meharry, Riley served as vice-president and vice dean for health affairs and governmental relations and associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Riley is responsible for leading the nation's largest historically black, independent, private, comprehensive academic health center charged with educating health professionals and scientists. The college is known for its emphasis on meeting the primary health care needs of minorities, the poor and the underserved.

Founded in 1876, Meharry is the foremost producer of African-American Ph.D.s in the country and graduates approximately 25 percent of the nation's African-American dentists and physicians.

Riley recently talked with Reporter writer Jessica Pasley about his new role and Meharry Medical College’s ongoing mission.

Now that you have had time to settle into your new post as president of Meharry Medical College, what do you see as your top priorities?

There are so many. One of my problems is that I am impatient for progress and I have a lot of aspirations for this institution. I often say that the vision for Meharry is not limited by our North Nashville location. Our vision is an expansive vision and a vision that includes us being a national player among all the academic health science centers. This is a golden moment in Meharry's history to really capitalize on its 130 years of progress, and the 12 years of progress achieved under my predecessor Dr. John Maupin, and to take the institution to what I feel is its limitless future in the years ahead.

What are your priority areas for research?

Our priority areas for research include building a research infrastructure so that we are positioned as the nation's leader in basic and clinical research with regard to health care disparities. We don't just want to elucidate what the disparities are, but we want to drive the discovery that will contribute to the amelioration of those health care disparities. We are building a fantastic portfolio that focuses on some of the things that differentially affect people of color and the disadvantaged in the nation.

What are your thoughts about the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance?

There are two great academic health science centers in Nashville. One of the things that attracted me to the presidency of Meharry is the fact that we do have a fantastic working relationship with our academic health science partner across town, Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The Alliance is a joint platform that allows for unique education, research and clinical initiatives that enhance both centers. The history of the interaction between the two schools should be known and acknowledged. My father was a student here from 1956-60. I remember having discussions with him about what the extent of interaction was between the schools. He said it was very episodic. Very hit or miss. Nashville, like most of the South, was rigidly segregated. Although the schools are about 3.5 miles apart, they could have been 300 miles apart back then. If you fast-forward to today, you will recognize that times are indeed different and that both institutions have complementary goals for serving the community and the nation.

Evaluate the Medical School since your arrival, areas that reflect success as well as those that need attention.

Meharry is more than just a medical school — we are truly an academic health center. We have a dental school, a school of graduate studies and research and an affiliated teaching hospital in Nashville General Hospital at Meharry. With 1,000 employees, more than 700 students and five degree programs, in terms of strength, we are in great shape. We had well over 4,000 applications for the 96 entering spots in the School of Medicine and more than 2,500 applications for the 55 slots in the dental program. In this business, we must seek to continuously improve what we do on a daily basis. We are in the process of evaluating all of our clinical and academic programs with a focus of strengthening them for the years ahead. I have an analytical approach to expansion. I'd rather be small and excellent than large and mediocre. As someone trained in management, I believe in creating a strong leadership and management culture, a focus on financial performance and metrics and the adoption of “best practices.”

How does Nashville General Hospital fit into the future of Meharry and Nashville?

Nashville General is our primary teaching hospital. It is very important to the work we do and what Meharry has always done in taking care of the poor and underserved. The more important point is the fact that Nashville General, in my view, is also important to Nashville and the state of Tennessee. In the dialogue that I have had with governmental leadership I have emphasized the point that Nashville General is a key community asset that should be allowed to flourish and grow. The rise of the number of uninsured of all races is a challenge. This is reflective of the national problem we have with the organization and financing of health care. The lack of health insurance results in a lot of folks seeking care from our physicians who practice at Nashville General. Seventy-six percent of our alumni practice in underserved areas around the country; a fact that we are extremely proud of.

What would you like Meharry to look like in 10, 20, 30 years?

I would want to see us continue to be a national player and national treasure in research, education and patient care. I would want us to have an enhanced infrastructure to pursue our mission and have a rich array of collaborations with other educational institutions that share our common vision for health care in America. I want our student body to still focus their efforts on serving populations that are “at risk,” whether they be immigrant or native-born Tennesseans. I would like to see Meharry Medical College take its rightful place among the nation's most prestigious academic health centers.