LIFE TRANSFORMED: A CONVERSATION WITH UF HEALTH PRESIDENT DAVID R. NELSON, MD
UF Health brings a renewed focus to its vision and values in 2023
Delivering high-quality patient care is at the heart of all we do at UF Health. While that may seem simple enough, this can’t happen without the contributions of our UF Health faculty, staff, volunteers and students — no matter how big or small the job may be. Because of the work we do and the values we embrace, lives are transformed.
In the coming months, you’ll see a variety of stories focused on exciting new initiatives taking place across UF Health and how we are continuing to excel and grow to support our mission — patient care, education, scientific discovery and community engagement. Soon we will begin to feature how our employees are living our values at UF Health and how these efforts make a difference in the lives of others.
It’s an exciting time to be part of the UF Health family!
We recently sat down with David R. Nelson, MD, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health, to learn more about his vision for UF Health and the new One UF Health Together Roadmap that will serve as our guide over the next five years as we expand our footprint across the state of Florida. We also wanted to better understand how each of us can play a role in transforming lives and offering hope.
What does One UF Health Together mean to you?
The idea of “together” has been a big part of our guiding principles over the years. I wanted to clarify the uniqueness of UF and UF Health, and how what we do — for patients, for animals, for the environment, for the community — is really the sum of the parts that are the colleges, the research institutes, the hospitals, the physician practices, and our IFAS partners and our community. So, One UF Health Together — for me — is the real uniqueness of a major academic health system that is supported and guided by our six academic colleges, researchers and clinicians that really come together to deliver a very unique product to take care of the population. That’s very powerful.
Can you tell us a bit about your vision for UF Health and what you hope to accomplish?
The vision is to continue to elevate our multiple different missions focused around patient care, education, scientific discovery and community engagement and to advance each of those. The next decade is going to be a decade of responsible growth and, I hope, continued increasing impact of our clinical, research and education programs.
UF Health is always looking ahead, but when it comes to revisiting UF Health’s vision and values — why now?
There are two reasons. One is that it was time — we typically reevaluate our principles, priorities and values every five to seven years. But there’s also been a big change in our society, our faculty, our staff, our health system, and the needs of the state and the university. In the post-pandemic world, we have learned a lot more about resiliency and the critical needs of a healthy community, internally and externally, and how we deal with stress. It was time to reaffirm some of our existing values and to bring in more wellness-oriented values, which I think is critical for success as we move forward as a health system.
If you look at some of the values around integrity, respect, teamwork, well-being, diversity and inclusion, this is all about principles that drive a healthy work environment. The driving force behind everything is our faculty and staff and building the right work culture. We want to continue to improve so we have highlighted some new values that drive us and help us embrace some of those concepts.
What makes UF Health different?
UF Health is the only real academic health system in the state of Florida. And certainly, nothing has the breadth or the depth of a health care delivery system — both for humans and animals — backed up by the top research university in the state, thousands of trainees and a large education mission. But also, with UF being a land-grant institution, we have a mission to serve the needs of the people and the communities of the state of Florida. It really helps drive what we do and why we do it. We want to leverage our innovations and educational systems and improve the overall health and well-being of the state.
With the recent Scripps Florida integration in Jupiter, the growth of our health campus at UF Health North in Jacksonville and the announcement of the Ocala neighborhood hospital, it’s clear that UF Health is growing. Why is expanding UF Health’s footprint across Florida important?
There is the obvious component that we here at UF Health do things that no one else can do in the Southeast — we have some of the top programs in the nation, and there’s an interest to try to disseminate and offer those services to broader populations. And, again, as a land-grant university, part of our mission is to care for the greater state, and in order to do that, we need to have health care facilities and research endeavors that touch places outside of Gainesville. That is really the why. The other part that is critical is that there is a big focus around preventive care and what is called population health. So, the larger populations that you can touch and care for, the better the chances are at improving the overall health of that population by keeping people out of hospitals and keeping education and wellness at the forefront.
Can you share a few exciting things that have been transformational in support of our mission? Are there others on the horizon?
One of the simplest transformative actions has been listening to our community and stakeholders, changing the way we operate and changing investments. Actually, the first week that I started this job five years ago, one of our physicians and a benefactor in town came to me and said, “Dave, we really don’t do a good job taking care of children who have autism or are on the spectrum.”
So I listened. We realized there was a three-year waitlist to be seen. There was a really distributed way patients were being seen that was not friendly, especially to a person with special needs. So we took a building from the UF Health hospital at Springhill, in Northwest Gainesville, and created a center that we eventually named the UF Health Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment. We brought community stakeholders and organizations together and invited them to come in and deliver care with us. We put a lot of resources around patient-facing services, like coordinators and facilitators. And that has been one of the most impactful things we have ever done here at UF Health. Within six months, we took a three-year waitlist down to three weeks. And we have impacted thousands of families in North Central Florida.
There are many other more scientific scenarios — our liver transplant program is probably one of the best examples. It is one of the top programs in the United States, and we are No. 1 for the highest survival rate at one year for liver transplant recipients. We have pioneered multi-organ transplants and using that springboard, developed a concept similar to building an institute and really recreating a whole experience for a patient that involves coordinated care related to organ transplantation.
Additionally, artificial intelligence, or AI, has become a huge focus and will continue to be for years to come. We have to think about how we responsibly take advantage of the incredible resources and skills at UF to leverage AI. Using big data responsibly is the start of a whole new era. It is probably the biggest change that has occurred at UF Health in the last few years. This is a distinguishing feature of an academic health system. Our AI research is focused on how to use data to improve care and to enhance our abilities to diagnose and treat diseases.
Why are values important for an organization like UF Health?
Our values have to represent the people that make up our organization, and the strength of our organization is based on the strength of all the parts of UF Health. During the pandemic, we all faced issues of resiliency in our personal and professional lives. I think it taught us that our core values are just as important as the education, research and clinical missions that we all strive to support. We want to become better people, and we want to become more connected because that will allow us to become better servants to the public.
In your role as a leader and a physician here at UF Health, can you share a specific example of how you have worked with others to transform lives?
The autism center is a great example. Also, the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases, where we worked with really talented neurology and neurosurgery teams and a donor to create a world-class institute, is another. Again, in this case, the patient is the center of the universe.
I’ve spent my entire career chasing a single virus — hepatitis C. I graduated medical school just when this virus was discovered. Then 30 years later, being part of finding the cure, which turned out to be just a simple oral pill once a day for eight weeks, is amazing. And that led to the realization that just because we’ve designed the best drugs and can cure people, they have to be able to access them, they have to be able to afford them, and they have to want to take them. To start with an unknown virus, understand what it is, how to cure it, then face the real issues that we face as a health system about access, affordability and all the societal issues about trying to get the appropriate treatments for the right person in the right setting has been eye-opening and transformative.
What does success look like? What do you hope the faculty, staff and students here at UF Health accomplish in the months and years ahead?
Success is measured at an individual level and at an organizational level. At the individual level — which is really what these values and guiding principles speak to — it is about improving one’s overall strength of character to the best of their best abilities. And, as an organization, it is thinking about what we want to be. We want the external world to think of UF Health as one of the top academic health centers in the United States. We also want each of our colleges to have achieved that same level of acclaim across the different missions. But I think our biggest measure is whether we personally and organizationally leave the world, the state of Florida and our communities in a better place than when we found them.