Fenves and Johnston: Kirk Watson Transformed Health and Health Care in Austin

How the Dell Med School Hopes to Transform Health Care

Dear Senator Watson,

In your final week as a Texas state senator, we have been reflecting on the extraordinary impact you have had on our community and your special legacy in shaping the health care mission of The University of Texas at Austin.

In the early 2000s, there was much talk of building a medical school in Austin. It was an ambition that had been discussed for decades but had never materialized. A medical school in one of the largest cities without one felt like an idea that would be perpetually pushed to the future — for a later generation to take on.

But in 2011, you changed everything. Your “10 Goals in 10 Years for Health Care” lit the fire. Immediately, the pathway forward for our city and county was illuminated.

The No. 1 goal on your “10 in 10” list was to build a medical school. This was your priority because you understood the tremendous talent and resources available at our university. You knew that UT Austin had the ability to build a medical school like no other and train generations of doctors who could serve our city, county, state and nation. So, you did what you do best — brought people together to make it happen.

You made sure that a broad coalition worked collaboratively on a shared vision for health in Texas. You helped people see health care as a fundamental issue that affects everyone — regardless of background, beliefs or politics. And you made your case for change by telling your personal story as a cancer survivor, and people responded. Nobody else could have done that.

It all came together in 2012, when Travis County voters — in an unprecedented move — approved a ballot measure to invest in the creation of a new medical school. That commitment launched the Dell Medical School. And with strong support from the UT System Board of Regents, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and so many others in our Longhorn community, Dell Med welcomed its first class of 50 students in 2016.

And here we are now, nearly four years later, with Dell Med’s inaugural class preparing to graduate next month.

Senator Watson, you made it possible for Dell Med’s nearly 200 students to receive a world-class medical education right here in our state’s capital. And now, the first graduates are going to pay it forward — all have matched with residency programs across the country and almost half of them will remain in Texas (11 will stay right here in Austin) to practice medicine and serve at a time when they are needed to help lead us through an unprecedented public health crisis.

And your impact on the university’s health care mission goes beyond our students and future doctors: UT Health Austin’s medical workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis and are delivering patient-centered, value-focused care to our community; our unique partnerships with Central Health and Ascension Seton are further elevating the level of care in Austin; in 2014, the Livestrong Cancer Institutes emerged to pioneer new approaches to cancer treatment and care; in 2016, the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences took shape to advance patient treatment and neuroscience research; and just last year, your tireless work helped to prioritize the mental health needs of patients and families at the Austin State Hospital, which is now poised to become a premier center of brain health.

There is an old saying: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” You were the leader who lit the fire that sparked a health care revolution that started on our campus and is growing across Central Texas. Generations of Texans will benefit from all you have done.

You may be a University of Houston Cougar now, but forever in our community, you will be known as a Longhorn. Thank you, Senator Watson. We are deeply grateful.

Gregory L. Fenves is President of The University of Texas at Austin.

S. Claiborne “Clay” Johnston is dean of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.


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