As the year winds down, STAT reporters are taking a look at the stories they’re most eager to track in 2016. We’ll be running these daily through Dec. 31. Look for more New Year’s predictions here.
To make good use of the $1 billion-plus of federal research money it receives every year, Boston’s Longwood Medical Area had better make lots of scientific discoveries in 2016. Meanwhile, its teaching hospitals will continue to try out cutting-edge procedures, erect new buildings, and compete for each other’s patients, while wrestling with unwieldy electronic health records that make some doctors’ blood boil.
Next year will also hold big changes and challenges in Longwood leadership positions. Here are three worth watching:
The dean of Harvard’s public health school
The search for a new leader at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health began last summer, after Dean Julio Frenk announced he was moving to Miami.
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, put academic dean David Hunter in charge on a temporary basis. A group of 13 Harvard faculty is advising her in the search for a permanent leader, but the decision is ultimately up to Faust. That decision is likely to take place this year, though no firm deadline has been announced.
The hire will be an important one. The dean has power to set priorities for the school and pick which professors get hired. He or she will also inherit unfinished business Frenk left behind: to raise lots of money for a new building, or at least for major renovations to the school’s aging infrastructure.
To pick a new leader, Faust has to first figure out where the public health field is going, and which challenge the school should focus on: the genetics revolution? Health care reform? Climate change? The possibilities are vast, because the public health umbrella is huge: The school’s 475-person faculty includes biologists, physicists, lawyers, economists, journalists, and experts in global health.
Who will it be? The search committee is tight-lipped, but two names that have come up as potential internal candidates are Hunter, the acting dean, and Dr. Howard Koh, a former assistant secretary for health for the US Department of Health and Human Services, who returned to the school as a professor in 2014.
The dean of Harvard Medical School
As if one search weren’t enough, Faust also needs to find someone to lead Harvard Medical School, where Dr. Jeffrey Flier plans to step down from the dean’s post on July 31.
On one hand, it’s an incredibly high-profile job, as the Harvard name has international fame and the school is ranked number one in the country. But the dean’s power is limited: The school directly employs only 151 tenured or tenure-track faculty, in 10 basic science departments. The other 11,000-plus Harvard Medical School faculty, who train students in clinical skills, don’t actually work for Harvard — they work directly for 16 affiliated hospitals and clinics, which Harvard doesn’t own. Flier said he has spent a full 30 to 40 percent of his time as dean trying to build relationships with and coordinate that sprawling network of hospitals.
Despite its prestige, Harvard Medical School is also struggling financially: It saw deficits of over $40 million in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. In addition to figuring out how to balance the budget, the next dean will have to finish implementing a new curriculum that launched last fall.
Faust is still setting up an advisory committee to guide her in the search for Flier’s replacement, according to university spokesman Jeff Neal.
Dr. Betsy Nabel, President of Brigham and Women’s Hospital
A cardiologist by training, Dr. Betsy Nabel is juggling two prominent and challenging roles. Since 2010, she has been president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a 793-bed facility in Longwood that ranks in the nation’s top 10 hospitals. Meanwhile, Nabel is in the spotlight as the first-ever chief health and medical advisor to the National Football League.
As hospital president, she is now dealing with a complicated and costly transition to new electronic medical records from Epic Systems, Inc. At a town hall-style meeting earlier this month, Nabel fielded complaints from staff about technical frustrations with the software. She also faces contentious contract negotiations with the union that represents 3,200 nurses at the hospital.
In the NFL role, which Nabel took on in February, she has been offering strategic advice on what kind of medical research to support and how to keep players healthy and safe. That role is likely to gain more scrutiny now after the Christmas Day release of the movie “Concussion,” which portrays how dementia, depression, and suicide have plagued former players suffering from a degenerative brain disease.
If these two roles weren’t enough, Nabel took on a new appointment earlier this month as a board member of the hot biotech company Moderna (MRNA) Therapeutics, which raised a whopping $450 million from investors in 2015. Nabel’s challenge will be to bring credibility to the NFL job, and prove to her 16,000 employees and their patients that she can tend to the hospital’s troubles while taking on that national role.