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Communicating our way through this era of disease and change

Posted by on Monday, October 5, 2020 in Fall 2020, From the Dean .

Photo by David Bailey

Amid the challenges and tragedies of the global pandemic, there are inspiring moments. I’ve had a front row seat to both extraordinary courage and creativity, as the people of VUMC prepared for and managed through two COVID-19 surges in Middle Tennessee.

So many accomplishments, from dramatic swings in clinical, research and educational operations to sweeping support platform changes — from revenue cycle to health IT to lab testing — proved to the world what I already knew: VUMC, at its core, is wired differently than other institutions. I’ve witnessed special behaviors and abilities, grounded in history, manifest during this time of crisis.

Character is revealed in such times — for people and institutions. Vanderbilt is known worldwide to be among those rare places that can simultaneously advance science and education and continuously embed innovation and learning into daily routines — all while never straying from the mission of caring for people. That means we tend to attract and nurture people who — even in “good” times — are intellectually restless, constantly pushing the boundaries. I see it daily across all mission areas, from the front lines of care to those working tirelessly to support our vital missions behind the scenes.

So, when it “hit the fan” in February and early March, the 27,000 people of VUMC refused to simply “hunker down” and brace for what promised to be an epic public health tragedy. It’s just in our DNA to say, “No, I’m going to change reality.” And so, what was accomplished — in many cases overnight or in a matter of days — I wouldn’t have thought possible.

For example, we developed our own COVID-19 lab test in an amazingly short period of time — a few weeks — and against a backdrop of a reagent shortage (see story on page 6). And we, as well as the nation, benefit from the wisdom and insight of so many VUMC clinical and scientific leaders. Among them, Dr. Mark Denison, professor and director of Pediatric Infectious Disease and his coronavirus team stepped into the public eye with a clear-eyed resolve to make a difference (see story on page 16).

And we’ve built new muscles as we’ve adapted to COVID-19. Our collective ability to communicate with credibility has never been so thoroughly tested. There’s a clamor for real understanding — for vision — because people need the confidence that comes from real expertise. Not only is the public looking to health care leaders for the best ways to protect the ones they love, but business leaders need our expertise to safely operate. And our ability to relate to diverse audiences in a way that is not only heard, but internalized, can be the difference between life and death.

It’s an invigorating yet solemn reality that today Vanderbilt experts are routinely showcased in every conceivable medium around the world.

Why? Beyond our knowledge and understanding, our experts are adept at translating what they know into easy-to-understand analogies. The ability to untangle complex ideas demonstrates expertise — simple language does not diminish our training or expertise. Simple language, in fact, amplifies it.

In the last six months the Medical Center launched two new platforms — an internal news app, vumc2go, to keep our workforce informed about the issues that matter to them; and Vanderbilt Health DNA, a podcast series that conversationally explores the issues impacting health, medicine and society (see story on page 8).

This is a pivotal moment for health care. And now is the time to welcome people into our world by talking with them — not at them. As our people continue to push the innovation envelope, leading worldwide efforts to advance preventive vaccines and a host of treatments, weathering the COVID-19 storm will also be defined by how well we communicate and teach people the way forward.


Jeff Balser, MD, PhD
President and CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine