Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Regardless of who is tapped to be the next top doctor at the University of New Mexico, some things are known about the person.
Each of the candidates promised to be a champion for diversity and expressed readiness to take on the responsibility of addressing health disparities throughout the state.
And each would have to learn the culture of New Mexico and its university hospital on the fly. All four finalists for executive vice president of the UNM Health Sciences Center are from institutions outside the state and region.
Throughout the past month, the finalists were interviewed and participated in virtual public forums before representatives of the UNM health system, including faculty, staff, medical students and clinicians.
The role, whoever fills it, is not only a major position at UNM, but also the new leader in many ways will work for all New Mexicans.
Consider this: The goals of the next executive vice president include reducing health disparities across the state, with specific attention paid to Native American and Hispanic populations; developing the state’s health care workforce for years to come; making sure the UNM health system is financially strong; and maintaining good working relationships with state and local lawmakers, according to a “leadership profile” about the position created by the university.
The executive vice president will oversee a $2.2 billion budget and more than 10,000 employees, and will receive direct reports from the deans of the medical school and other health programs, the CEOs of UNM hospitals, and the leaders of UNM clinics, HSC research and the cancer center.
The transition will be the first of its kind in recent memory at UNM and it will take place during a global pandemic that has led to the deaths of more than 600 New Mexicans.
Dr. Paul Roth retired at the end of July after holding the executive vice president role for about 15 years. But when he took on the position, he was already well established in New Mexico. At the time, he had been the dean of the medical school for more than 10 years and had been at UNM since the 1970s when he arrived for his residency program.
Here’s a look at the four finalists:
Dr. Veronica Mallett
Mallett, who has been named one of the Top Blacks in Healthcare by blackdoctor.org, spoke about how her parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. She remembers picketing with her parents as a child outside a business that refused to serve Black people.
While answering a question about civil rights, she cut herself off to address more topics.
“Sorry to be a little overly passionate, this is something that is part of my core values. It’s really important to me that we address this and we really do something about it,” she said.
Mallett is executive director for the Center for Women’s Health Research and was senior vice president for health affairs and dean at Meharry Medical College School of Medicine in Nashville. She completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology.
When it comes to addressing health disparities, Mallett told a story about working at a hospital in Memphis while at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. She said shortly after arriving at the hospital, there were two maternal deaths. She described the hospital’s response as “cavalier.”
“These were poor Black women,” she said. “It seemed like the hospital didn’t value their lives.”
Mallett said an investigation revealed the problem was a nursing shortage. She said she worked with the hospital administration to address it by creating a nursing residency program, improving communication between physicians and nurses, and changing the culture at the institution, which originally wasn’t receptive.
“They were very angry,” she said. “But when I appealed to their humanity and their sense of decency about why we were in health care, they partnered with me and helped solve the problem.”
Dr. Elena Fuentes-Afflick
Fuentes-Afflick sees patients one day a month.
That may not seem like a lot, but that’s in addition to her leadership roles as professor and vice chair of pediatrics, chief of pediatrics at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and vice dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
She’s trained as both a physician and a public health official, having completed a residency in pediatrics, as well as a master’s degree in public health.
During her forums, Fuentes-Afflick said she believes in improving systems to address health disparities.
“There’s a limit to what we can do one on one,” she said. “Then we have to think about a community, state or country.”
Fuentes-Afflick said her career path originally flummoxed some physicians. She had already completed medical school. Why then pursue a master’s degree?
But she said such a background makes her well-suited to lead the university health system. It will help her carry out the goal of addressing health issues in rural and poor parts of the state, as well as in creating systems for addressing such issues as faculty misconduct, she said.
Fuentes-Afflick’s career has included similar work in researching and addressing health disparities in California, particularly how ethnicity and immigration status affect care and outcomes for the state’s Latina population.
“It has really informed my perspective,” she said. “What are the policies, structures and systems in place that enhance or impede our work?”
Healton comes from a large family. Her mother was one of 16 children, who each had numerous children, who now make up a close-knit family of more than 400.
And her family has been ravaged by health problems, with many dying, from smoking cigarettes, she said.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Healton’s résumé includes being the founding president and CEO of a leading anti-tobacco foundation, which has been credited for significantly curbing smoking rates, particularly among youth.
Healton, who is a doctor of public health, has been the dean of the School of Global Public Health at New York University since 2012. For 14 years before that, she was president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, the group behind the Truth campaign against smoking.
She came to her forums prepared with some data about the leading causes of death and disability in New Mexico. Four of the five, she said, are behavioral: diet, alcohol, drugs and, right in her wheelhouse, smoking.
“Every time I hear the term ‘behavior’ and ‘lifestyle factors,’ I want to remind everyone that what leads one to have a problem with those things almost always begins in adolescence and almost always is part of a complex socioeconomic status,” she said.
Lately, Healton’s position at NYU has made her a regular source on coronavirus policy, and she’s appeared in many national and New York news reports speaking about public health approaches to the pandemic.
She didn’t speak favorably of the nationwide response, noting the virus has disproportionately affected people of color.
“The coronavirus is novel, racism is not,” she said, adding the U.S. response “has been a national disgrace.”
Dr. Douglas Ziedonis
Ziedonis’ parents were eastern European immigrants who lived through World War II before settling in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town where Ziedonis was one of few people to attend college.
Growing up in a blue-collar town with a father who was a minister, Ziedonis said he drew inspiration to become a doctor from an unlikely source: “Marcus Welby, M.D.”, a 1970s television program where the lead character was a kind-hearted physician with a pleasant bedside manner.
“I see myself as a bridge builder,” Ziedonis said during a forum. “And a helper of others.”
Ziedonis did his residency in psychiatry, and his career includes work with people who have mental illness and addiction disorders. He also has a master’s degree in public health.
He is currently associate vice chancellor for health sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He has held senior hospital leadership positions for the past 13 years at UCSD and the University of Massachusetts.
His professional career has included years as a faculty member at Yale, Rutgers and UMASS.
Ziedonis said since taking on leadership roles, he has focused on becoming a mentor. In recent years, he’s worked to create a leadership program for medical students.
He said the coronavirus pandemic will put financial stress on the university for at least a couple of years, noting that the state has already cut funding to the health system.
“That lends itself to some issues. The ability to recruit can be difficult when times get tight,” he said. “I say, ‘OK, lets strengthen the folks that are here.’ ”