By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
Dr. William Henrich, president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, recently sat down with Silicon Hills News to talk about all of the innovation happening at the institution he oversees.
Dr. Henrich joined the Health Science Center in 2006 as dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs. He became president in 2009.
At the Health Science Center, Dr. Henrich oversees a $765 million budget, 6,000 employees and projects like the construction of the $106 million Medical Arts and Research Center, which opened in 2009; the $150 million South Texas Research Facility, which opened in 2011; and the $96.5 million Center for Oral Health Care and Research, scheduled to open in 2015.
SHN: What do you think are the strengths of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio?
WH: There are many. I think neurosciences is one – about a third of our extramural grants come in support of the neurosciences. We have outstanding work in multiple sclerosis and dementia and psychiatric neurosciences such as schizophrenia. I’ll mention our pain scientist Dr. Ken Hargreaves, a neuroscientist whose team has discovered a new class of non-addictive painkillers. In other areas, diabetes is a major strength because of the work of Dr. Ralph DeFronzo and his team. (Dr. DeFronzo leads the University Health System’s Texas Diabetes Institute, which has developed new treatments for Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.) We always mention healthy aging through an institute called the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. That’s a real treasure for Texas and it’s a real jewel for San Antonio. And it’s certainly something we’re extremely proud of. It’s the leading aging center, in terms of extramural funding, in Texas. And it is growing. I guess the last thing to mention that is an asset for us is we have a very strong partnership with the military and we have many programs that we share with the military. And I think it’s a natural bond to form between the Health Science Center and the many attributes of the military system in San Antonio. If you’re talking about more general assets, I’d be remiss in not mentioning the fine educational programs we have here in medicine, dentistry, nursing and the health professions. Our students are very successful and compete well nationally for positions after they finish here. I’d say we have a very strong and very competent management team – individuals who understand the mission of advancing discovery and education in health care. So I’m very proud of that.
SHN: How does the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio fit with the overall life sciences industry in San Antonio? You mentioned the collaboration with the military. Are there programs you work on together?
WH: I could start by mentioning the educational programs. At last count, we had 18 programs where we send trainees to the San Antonio Military Medical Center and they send trainees back to our Health Science Center. And the trainees get the benefit of training at both places. We both also have tremendously developed interest in post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts approximately 15 percent of returning veterans from theater. It’s now more of a public health problem as it affects somewhere between 5 percent and 7 percent of adults in the civilian population. Our relationship with the military and specifically with the Department of Defense led to acquisition of a major grant here in the diagnosis and better treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
SHN: How does the creation of the Dell Medical School affect the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio? Is it considered competition? Is it considered collaboration? Does it make you stronger? Does it impact you in getting funds?
WH: It is likely a combination of all the things you mentioned, not just one. It offers a set of new opportunities for collaboration. Enrolling patients in clinical trials could be a place where the new institution could partner with the old institution, to enroll critical numbers of patients much more quickly than if we didn’t collaborate. Secondly, I’d say there is more competition. There will be some discussion and some evolution that will occur on how the clinical practices will interact in this new space. There will be competition for faculty and that will be a two-way street. You could consider that as a negative, but I don’t because that is the kind of competition in which we already participate. We are in competition with other institutions not just in Texas but also around the country for federal grant dollars, as one example. I think there will be increased competition from this medical school in Austin but also from the new medical school in South Texas, which we are basically creating from our Health Science Center.
SHN: Are these new institutions needed and will they add to the amelioration of the physician shortage and health care professional shortage in Texas?
WH: Yes they are. Texas ranks very low in the grand spectrum of states in which we look at the per capita number of physicians per population. And these new medical schools will help with that. All the medical schools in the state are doing a good job of expanding their classes. The lesion in the pipeline is that we need more graduate medical education because we don’t have enough physicians as interns and residents to accommodate the increase in the number of medical students. So what I’m saying is there is an uncoupling of growing the medical student graduation class but not growing the graduate medical education in proportion. Hence, more and more students who graduate from Texas medical schools will have to leave the state to go find training opportunities elsewhere. And the reason that should catch attention is because there is a 60 percent to 70 percent chance that where you train you will stay. Certainly, even if you don’t stay in San Antonio but you trained here, you’re likely to stay in Texas somewhere. It costs a lot of money to educate the medical students and then we’re a net exporter of them to other states that are glad to get them. And then invariably not all of them come back. I would say we’re doing a good job of expanding medical school student size. The real key to changing the scoreboard in terms of number of physicians in the state is to grow the graduate medical education.
SHN: What have been some of the major successes of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio since the first class was admitted in 1966?
WH: I’d say that among the big accomplishments, we now have upward of 30,000 alumni. If you go to a doctor or see a nurse or go to a dentist or have someone treat you for physical therapy in San Antonio, the odds are high that the person who sees you in this professional capacity either went to school here or trained here. So I think one of the major contributions from the Health Science Center is this incredibly talented workforce that has gone on to populate our city and the rest of Texas in addition to the United States and world. If I can be a bit of drum pounder, it is known that the biggest economy in San Antonio today is the life sciences. That’s a book of business that now exceeds $30 billion. What I would say about the Health Science Center’s role in this wonderful success is that it isn’t that the Health Science Center is responsible for $30 billion of business. It’s a small fraction of that. But it’s true to say the Health Science Center is at the hub of this growth. It’s hard to imagine any city having this kind of phenomenal growth in the health sciences without having an academic Health Science Center at the core. This is because the Health Science Center is partners with everybody. We’re partners with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the military, The University of Texas at San Antonio, with everybody. And I think it’s accurate to say the growth and the success of this sector of the city’s business would not have been either as fast or as successful without having 1,800 Health Science Center faculty, a $200 million research budget and the ability to collaborate along so many discipline levels. It creates a sense of excitement that is hard to replicate without having a wonderful university Health Science Center there.
I don’t think there is a better example, and my colleagues around the country agree with this, of the value of what a Health Science Center has done for its city than San Antonio, Texas. I know when I network with people around the country they say, “When you look at what an academic Health Science Center brings to a city, you look no further than San Antonio.” In 40 short years, this industry has outstripped the tourism industry and the manufacturing industry in San Antonio. It’s not because the Health Science Center was responsible for every brick laid or every laboratory that was built, but it was an asset to the city. And hence Austin really wanted a medical school. Phoenix wanted a medical school. Charlotte wanted a medical school. These great cities in our country, which are growing and thriving, as a case study would look at San Antonio and say maybe we can have some of that kind of success.
SHN: How does the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio work to commercialize technology coming out of the lab to create new ventures?
WH: We’re expanding our tech-transfer operation and our efforts to bring, to company acquisition or formation, inventions of our faculty – new drugs, new therapies, new devices, etc. We’re the home of one of the most important innovations of the 21st century – the Palmaz Stent, invented by Health Science Center radiologist Dr. Julio Palmaz.
SHN: What are the plans for expansion at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio?
WH: In San Antonio, we are growing tremendously our School of Dentistry and our dental practice with a new building that is coming online. We are expanding our teaching space with a new state-of-the-art learning and teaching center. We hope to renovate a large percentage of our older lab space and convert that into modern lab space. We’re always in the business of recruiting new faculty. That will be a major effort for us. On the clinical side, we have plans to grow our clinical business substantially in cooperation with a number of our hospital partners. It’s a very busy time despite the financial austerity that exists. All of it is devoted to getting resources to our wonderful faculty so they can be successful. We need to put resources into the hands of the people who are doing the work here.