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Keeping our communities well: Kindness, safety and clinical excellence

Dr. Art Kellermann describes how VCU Health is uniquely positioned to respond to today’s challenges.

Black mother with daughter, smiling

VCU's academic health system and its Health Sciences schools have been serving the Richmond community and the commonwealth for a long time. But today's challenges are unprecedented. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally affected minority communities. And health care professionals and researchers have been working tirelessly to care for patients and work on effective treatments.

Dr. Art Kellermann, the new senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health System, has witnessed one thing in particular since entering his role in October 2020 in the midst of the pandemic: Resiliency.

Dr. Arthur Kellermann headshotDr. Kellermann firmly believes that the academic health sciences enterprise that is VCU Health has the talent, energy and ability to collaborate with Virginians and people from all over the world to improve health, advance knowledge and educate high achievers.

Here, Dr. Kellermann discusses today's challenges and opportunities for health care and how VCU Health is uniquely positioned to respond.

What attracted you to VCU and VCU Health?

The fact that this institution has been here for over 180 years and has never wavered from its commitment to the community and to the commonwealth and to taking care of everybody.

Before serving as dean of the military's Leadership Academy for Military Medicine, I had spent my whole career working in public hospitals, level one trauma centers, inner city ERs. And so that mission has always attracted me. But I'm also a research scientist and a medical educator.

In VCU and VCU Health, what I found was an institution that was at the cutting edge of advances in science, critical care, cancer, neuroscience, cardiovascular, but also had the beating heart of an institution that has never forgotten the community that it is in and the state that it serves. And that just was a calling that was too hard to turn down.

It was a hard decision for me to leave the position I had before, because I was working with such dedicated exceptional people, but there are a lot of dedicated exceptional people here as well.

What do you see as today's biggest challenges and opportunities for health care in general?

The immediate challenge before us is dealing with COVID and the coronavirus. This is the most serious pandemic our nation and the world has faced in over a hundred years. And while some people seem determined to not take it seriously, that's a deadly mistake.

We really have to pull together first and foremost in prevention, but then also in rapidly advancing care and countermeasures, like the vaccines that are now on the horizon to push back on this disease.

So this is an enormous challenge for American medicine and really for world health. Once we get past it — and we will get past it — then I think for American health care, the biggest challenges are access, affordability and equity.

By that I mean we need to assure that everyone in this country can get the basic care they need, and that we have a strong and robust public health system.

We need to make sure that people can actually afford health care and not face medical bankruptcy for an unavoidable problem or condition. We need to make sure that everybody's health is looked after, not just those who are in the right zip codes or have the right connections.

All three of those are fundamental priorities for VCU Health.

How are VCU and VCU Health uniquely positioned to respond to some of these challenges?

VCU Health and this hospital currently provide the most advanced, the most complex, the most sophisticated and the most skilled care in the commonwealth for many life-threatening conditions.

For example, VCU's trauma center is the only trauma center in Virginia for level one adult, level one pediatric and burns. Massey Cancer Center is one of the top cancer centers on the East Coast, and we're aiming to be one of the top cancer centers in the world. The cardiovascular program here — everything from heart transplant and even artificial hearts, to opening up blocked coronary arteries as quickly as possible — unparalleled.

So that's always been VCU's core strength — these kinds of services that, when your life is on the line or you have a problem that nobody else can fix, this is where you want to go.

But beyond that, what we also have now are the capabilities to reinvent primary care and reinvent community health in partnership with neighborhoods, in partnership with counties, in partnership with the commonwealth, so that the health of all Virginians is raised and sustained. That's going to be one of our key priorities going forward.

The virtue of any academic medical center, but especially one with a heart like VCU's, is that you have the intellectual horsepower to invent, design, improve and constantly drive to do better at the same time that you're educating future health professionals for the area. And you’re doing so with a heart connected to the community, committed to the Commonwealth and committed to the common good.

That's one of the things I love about VCU. There are plenty of elite academic institutions in this country, especially on the East Coast. VCU is the people's university. We give everybody a chance.
We've got one of the most diverse student bodies anywhere. We are taking folks who really want a shot at getting their lives better and getting that first kid to college. And we're also open, accessible and caring for anybody who needs help, and not doing a ‘wallet biopsy’ at the front door.

And those twin virtues of cutting-edge ability to think, design, improve and invent, coupled with the compassion and the commitment to the community, are what I think makes this such a unique resource to Richmond, to the metro area, to the commonwealth of Virginia and to our country.

Tell us more about some of the other priorities you're excited about.

The issue that I, and I think anybody who's involved in working with or leading a health care system, should prioritize is making sure that everybody who arrives, whether they're coming in for a routine clinic visit or health checkup or they're coming in for their third recurrence of cancer, that the care that they get is going to be safe — unfailingly safe — and consistent and always kind.
We've always been known for skilled care, but we want to make sure that no matter what the issue is, that the care is safe and that the care is kind. That's what anybody has every reason to expect in any health care system.

As I said earlier, we want to make sure that we deliver an outstanding level of service to everybody. So we're working on getting VCU Health out more into the community and into people's neighborhoods.

Historically VCU was absolutely grounded downtown, and that is where our main hospital is and where many of our clinics are. But as the metro area grows, it can be tough to get downtown. Right now, because we're constructing an amazing children's hospital and an outpatient pavilion, it's even tougher because of all the construction. So we're looking to develop VCU facilities in neighborhoods and in the broader community where the kind of expertise we have is more accessible to patients.

We're also partnering with health systems that on one day might be a competitor, but on most days are cooperating with us. We're putting outstanding VCU medical talent in hospitals that have another institution's name on the front door, but it's VCU docs that are looking after you or your children We will increasingly align with systems in the state that from time to time really have those tough cases.

What I’m talking about is reaching out and connecting, not buying practices — not necessarily opening brand new freestanding ERs, although we've put a couple where nobody else was willing to, because it was the right thing to do. We’re making allies so that the health systems, plural, of Virginia and most importantly the health of all Virginians, is optimized. That’s the mid- to long-term goal. First we've got to get through coronavirus, but then we can go about doing some really amazing things for the commonwealth that I think will make us the envy of the country, and folks will be coming here to see how it's done.

Can you talk about VCU Health’s pandemic response, and what we can do as a community to stay safe and healthy?

The absolute most important thing every one of us can do is to take this pandemic seriously and follow basic preventative countermeasures. The thing you have to consider is that this is a disease that attacks silently, particularly among young people. It can infect quickly one person after another, and they won't even know they're sick for days, sometimes even for a week or two. And if you're a young adult, you may never feel ill. And yet you have the ability to pass that virus onto your grandmother or your parents or your next-door neighbor.

So mask wearing, social distancing or physical distancing, maintaining at least six feet of separation from the person next to you as much as possible, unless they're your immediate family or a very close person that you're living with, and regular hand-washing — those three things, as simple as they are, are incredibly effective and the best way to deal with this disease, which could be life-threatening. It kills or it can put people in an intensive care unit for weeks and leave them weakened and struggling to function for months. And it can be prevented by the most basic, simple things.

The problem is there have been too many fragmented messages out there, too many people saying, “Well, nobody can tell me what to do." Well, you know, we have speed limits. That's telling people what to do. We have seatbelts in cars. That's telling people what to do. We enforce laws about seatbelts. We expect people to wear a motorcycle helmet. You know, we don't let people drive 150 miles an hour in a 30-mile an hour zone. That's telling people what to do. And that's because society recognizes that sometimes a very minor accommodation for the good of all of us not only will save your life and the lives of people you care about, but it will keep the community healthy.

We're also absolutely focused on encouraging everybody — Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native American, young, old —to focus on prevention, because that's the most inexpensive thing you can do and is, at this point, the one thing we know is effective. But it requires everybody to buy in. And I hope and I pray that anybody reading this or listening to my podcast will listen to those words and buy into it.

Meanwhile, we're partnering on major research, trials and improvements in diagnostics and treatment. We will be one of the first health care facilities in the state to get the vaccine.

Is there anything else you'd like to add to this conversation that we didn't touch on?

All I can say is that you live in an amazing community and an amazing state. I was born and raised in East Tennessee, grew up in a small town. The doctor that inspired me to go into medicine was the town's only African American physician. I trained at Emory University and worked in Atlanta at Grady Hospital, which is Atlanta's public hospital. I then moved to Washington D.C., and for the last seven years I was dean of the Leadership Academy of Military Health. 

But I got to Virginia as soon as I could, and I'm happy to be here. I'm looking forward to working with the amazing doctors and nurses at VCU, but also getting to know the community, my neighbors and this state. I'm here for the long haul, and we are going to make Virginia the healthiest state in the country.

To listen to this conversation, please visit our podcast with Dr. Kellermann.