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DUHS CEO Washington setting the bar high

He has only been at Duke since April, but Dr. A. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, already knows what he wants to accomplish.

“We can really make this a model city, county and area from the perspective of population health improvement,” Washington said.

Since taking over for Victor Dzau—who held the position for a decade, established multiple institutes and implemented an electronic medical records system—on April 1, Washington has been preparing to make his own mark on DUHS. In overseeing education, healthcare and clinical practice, Washington hopes to strengthen cross-campus collaboration between the School of Medicine and the University’s other schools to counteract the effects of dwindling research funding and the Affordable Care Act.

One of the main reasons Washington chose to come to Duke was the opportunity to drive high-caliber programs related to medicine from other disciplines—law, business, public policy and engineering—in close proximity to one another, he explained, noting that his goal of building a model for population health management is more realistic in his new role.

“I jokingly say to just about everybody, last time I checked it says chancellor for health affairs at Duke, not chancellor for health affairs in the medical school or the Nursing School,” Washington said about the opportunity to work across the entire campus.

Washington, 64, previously held major administrative positions at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Francisco, where “he has done many of the things we’re interested in building at Duke,” Provost Sally Kornbluth said.

An already decorated health-policy scholar, he is now hoping to use his role as a University representative to partner with businesses, the city of Durham and other forms of government to begin improving health beyond campus borders and to “create something that few institutions could match.”

Part of Washington’s extensive research background has been in assessing the effects of medical technologies. These will become increasingly important as a result of the Affordable Care Act, since DUHS and other health systems will be incentivized to minimize the number of patients coming into hospitals and shift from individual healthcare to population-based treatment, he explained.

“Affordable care from my vantage point is going to motivate us to focus more on health promotion and wellness,” Washington said.

Washington also explained that the use of different forms of telemedicine at Duke and across the nation, as well as virtual communication between health providers, will be crucial for managing the health of both individual patients and entire populations. Ways to more efficiently use resources within a changing healthcare landscape will be a major focus of Washington’s strategic planning efforts and meetings with the DUHS Board of Directors in the upcoming year.

Efforts will be made to prepare the schools of medicine, nursing and others for the future as well, Washington noted, explaining that he hopes to foster more interdisciplinary professional education.

“I see it as a first order of business, if we think about healthcare in 2020 and what that looks like. One of the things that we’ll see is even more of a team approach for taking care of people,” he said. “That does include the physician assistant program we have, but it certainly includes nursing and medicine.”

As part of his push to maximize resources through cross-campus initiatives, Washington also wants to emphasize quantitative science because of its wide applications in medicine and because of Duke’s strengths in engineering, math, computer science and statistics.

“From whether you’re doing research at the molecular level to studying whole populations, understanding quantitative signs in terms of big data—how you constitute it, how you access it, how you form it and package it to get it out for use—starts with the having the right people in our community and the right infrastructure to work with,” he explained.

Although Duke’s on-campus programs and people led Washington to move his career across the country, its global presence also attracted him to the role, especially the Duke Global Health Institute and the University’s partnership with the National University of Singapore through Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. Washington has already funded multiple global health programs that were up for renewal and traveled to Singapore as part of his mission to use the University’s resources to change population healthcare.

One of the reasons to expect more instances of University medicine-related collaboration under Washington’s direction is his personality, which Kornbluth noted is a major reason that discussions about partnerships involving quantitative sciences have been so productive.

“He’s so affable, friendly and easy to talk to. It’s not only his intellectual talents — it’s the fact that he can really get along with everybody and get people to work together,” she said.

Now with his transitional first 100 days as chancellor behind him, Washington has his sights set on not only making the areas surrounding Duke a model for population healthcare, but making the path to get there a blueprint for other universities to use as well.

“The whole goal is at Duke is that we don’t just do this to take care of ourselves, or even to be ready for today. We accept the obligation to create this for the future, to help other institutions figure this out,” Washington said. “If not at Duke, then where?”