Dear Colleagues-Friends,

If there was one word to describe the year 2021, I think “change” would be high on the list. Over the past 12 months, we have seen, experienced, and yes, withstood a tremendous amount of change across our academic medical center – not the least of which has been the recent launch of Epic, which is poised to improve our delivery of services across the continuum of care.

We also have seen the expansion of our clinical reach across the region, as we officially welcomed Riverside Tappahannock Hospital into the VCU Health System on January 1, 2021. More recently, we celebrated the opening of our new 17-story, 615,000 square foot Adult Outpatient Pavilion and the Short Pump Pavilion Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Along with the addition of these new state-of-the-art facilities, we have welcomed several new leaders over the course of 2021. In July, Luan Lawson, M.D., joined us as our senior associate dean of medical education and student affairs, followed by our new senior associate dean for finance and administration, Cathy Wood, MBA, in August. Also joining our leadership team was Kevin Harris, Ph.D., our senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion – an inaugural and vital position for our school, and Alice Coombs, M.D., the new chair of the Department of Anesthesiology.

When it comes to our students, the 2021–2022 academic year brought us our most diverse medical class ever. Instrumental to this recruitment effort was the Dean’s Equity Scholarship, which helps eliminate barriers to access for students of all backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic status. Last year, we committed $600,000 to this initiative and our Med-Health development colleagues and their partners have been steadfast in their commitment to continue to grow this fund. Our sincerest appreciation to them and to the generous alumni and community members who made fiscal year 2021 our best philanthropic year ever, garnering $66 million for our School of Medicine and VCU Health and helping to create and expand scholarship funds so our students graduate with less debt.

Our current and incoming learners also will benefit from a critical curriculum review taken through an anti-bias, anti-racist, DEI lens that was fueled by our students in partnership with our faculty. The curriculum review committee provided more than 100 recommendations to the Office of Medical Education that spanned both preclinical and clinical phases. One of the central themes was the need to address race and how it's being used, often inappropriately, in medical decision-making. There is still more work that needs to be done, but this review was an essential first step in making sure our curriculum aligns with our values and reflects the diversity of both our medical students and the communities we serve.

On the research front, VCU’s overall funding is up a remarkable 25% over the past three fiscal years. Our medical school continues to lead the way, accounting for $183.4 million last year – half of the university’s sponsored research funding. Our growing portfolio includes a highly competitive SPORE grant from the NCI to the VCU Massey Cancer Center – the first ever awarded in the state. It will help us address the disproportionate effects of lung cancer on the African American community.

We also launched a new Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health to be led by our gifted colleague Dr. Arun Sanyal. The institute will build on the success of our nationally recognized hepatology and liver transplant programs to make VCU a global leader in research and education about liver diseases and metabolically driven disorders as well as in the care for patients with these conditions.

All of this transformation has taken place against the backdrop of one thing we wish would change – the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the optimism we felt at the beginning of the year with the availability of safe and effective vaccines, COVID-19 has continued to be transmitted at high levels in our community, stretching our resources and serving to expose gaps in the equity of our national health care system. COVID-19 has reminded us poignantly of how fleeting life is and how much we should cherish both simple moments and life’s big transitions. With these reminders comes a greater appreciation of human contact, social interactions and being able to laugh and enjoy humorous moments – the sheer joy of being with one another.

In the face of yet another challenging year, you have continued to demonstrate unwavering dedication to our patients, learners and community; enhance our reputation as a highly collaborative school at the forefront of both basic science and clinical research; and steadfastly move our school forward in our mission to provide students and trainees with the highest quality learning environment.

Many thanks to all of you for your hard work, adaptability and commitment. I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy time with those who mean the most to you in the weeks ahead and take some time to relax and reflect, which is so important for maintaining your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

To those who celebrate holidays in December, I wish you and yours a happy holiday season and a healthy start to 2022.

With all good wishes,

Pter F. Buckley, M.D.; Dean, VCU School of Medicine; Executive vice President for Medical Affairs, VCU Health System