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West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute Retreat

Prepared Remarks
September 27, 2015

Thank you, Dr. Hodder, for that kind introduction. You know, Dr. Hodder’s official title is associate vice president for clinical and translational research—which just flows off the tongue, doesn’t it? But after my second statewide tour this summer, I have a new name for her—my advance team.

I visited 40 counties in West Virginia this year. And in an amazing number of places, the people I met told me, “Dr. Hodder was just here.”

I began to feel a little like Clark Kent, showing up somewhere to learn that Superman had just flown away.

So I am glad to be here today with Dr. Hodder, to tell her directly what a great job she is doing—and to dispel rumors that we are, in fact, the same person.

In all seriousness, though, “the advance team” would not be a bad nickname for WVCTSI as a whole. Because our University’s medical researchers are working tirelessly to advance our state. In fact, they are advancing like an avenging army on the biggest threats to West Virginians’ health.

We know that those threats are real.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, our state has:
  • The highest percentage of adults who smoke
  • The third-highest rate of adult obesity
  • The second-highest rate of adult diabetes
  • The second-highest cancer death rate
  • The highest percentage of adults with hypertension
  • The second-lowest life expectancy at birth

This is not the quality of life we want for our citizens. And it is certainly not the future we want for our children. Through our nationally recognized rural health initiatives, West Virginia University has a long history of providing live-saving care to West Virginians.

But now, through WVCTSI, we are stepping up the research that will translate into real solutions—and real improvement in state health statistics.

In my wallet, I carry a laminated card that lists my six leadership goals for West Virginia University. These are the goals I work toward every day.

One of them is: Commit to our communities.

Because at West Virginia University, making discoveries that improve lives is our land-grant mandate.

I often say that fulfilling our mandate requires us to work as ONE West Virginia University, for ONE West Virginia.

Well, that ONE West Virginia must be ONE healthy West Virginia.

How can we create jobs, attract businesses and grow our economy until we have a healthy workforce?

How can we improve education unless our children are well enough to learn?

Improving health is the foundation for improving everything about West Virginia.

That is why West Virginia University is harnessing all its health care resources to reverse West Virginia’s race to the bottom.

We are building a true unified health system under the new name WVU Medicine. When you see the Flying WV on a hospital or doctor’s office, you have our promise that you will be treated by experts, treated with care and respect, and that everyone you see inside is a true gold and blue Mountaineer.

Through our School for Public Health, we are attracting top faculty members and students to promote healthy lifestyles and disease prevention.

And through WVCTSI, we are translating research into life-saving solutions throughout our state.

The Institute’s researchers are not letting boundaries within our university become fetters on their imagination. Instead, they are collaborating across disciplines.

And they are not letting boundaries within our state become barriers to progress. Instead, they are building powerful partnerships.

In its work for one West Virginia, the Institute is pioneering big ideas. And it is showing us all how we can create big change for West Virginians.

First, we must pay attention to people and understand their problems.

Second, we must innovate fearlessly to solve those problems.

And finally, we must find partners who can help us apply our solutions.

The first step is the easiest but the one we as academics have too often forgotten: Paying attention.

Thanks to Institute researchers, our University is paying renewed attention to the everyday choices that can make West Virginians healthier—or put them on the path to disease.

For example, nurse and Institute research scholar Jen Mallow is handing out iPads to patients at the Morgantown HealthRight clinic so they can track their health every day – and have a face-to-face talk with someone at the clinic when they have a problem – without leaving home.

In the Eastern Panhandle our doctors and medical students are prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables to patients – and then showing them how to prepare them.

Every day, our medical specialists are fanning out across West Virginia’s highways – to Gilbert, to Beckley, to Wheeling, to Parkersburg and Elkins – wherever people need them – to operate clinics for children and adults. In church parking lots and shopping centers, Bonnie’s Bus has provided more than 9,000 mammograms – and detected more than 30 cases of breast cancer.

The CARDIAC Program, founded by Dr. Bill Neal, has screened 150,000 schoolchildren across the state for high cholesterol – and gotten them and their families connected with resources to head off heart disease.

In a state where 1 in 8 babies is born to a teen mother, teen pregnancy is a major public health concern. These babies face higher rates of poverty and illness than their peers, and their mothers are apt to drop out of school. So Dr. Pamela Murray is reaching teens where they live—on their phones.

She help to create a free app that will help teens make better choices.

Each individual step we are taking for West Virginia may seem small. But they add up to a big impact. And they are driven by big ideas.

Because our researchers dare to think big:
They are making stroke diagnosis as fast and easy as a blood test.

They are transforming prosthetic devices in ways that could eventually produce an artificial hand that feels and responds like a real one.

They are pioneering the pediatric use of pacemakers for the diaphragm—devices that allow children with spinal cord injuries to breathe without being hooked up to a ventilator.

They are uncovering the mind’s secrets through the development of a wearable PET scanner that monitors the brain during daily activities.

Dr. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, another Institute research scholar, is on the team that is using this device to study the brain in motion.

“The portable PET scanner opens up a whole, new niche,” she said. “We hope to be able to go into an area of science that was previously off limits.”

The portable scanner has a unique ability to show scientists how brains respond to stress. To see, from the inside, a person with autism confronting social situations, a stroke patient working through rehab exercises or a Parkinson’s patient struggling to walk.

This is advancing technology to save lives.

This is fearless innovation.

It is the second vital step in improving state health statistics. And it is well under way here at West Virginia University.

The third step, collaboration, goes hand in hand with innovation. Our state’s problems are too big for any one person, or department, or institution to solve alone. All the cutting-edge developments I have described grew from collaborative efforts.

To create solutions, we need to find partners—partners at other universities, at state hospitals and health clinics, in state and federal government, and in the private sector.

Consider colorectal cancer, one of the most deadly cancers in West Virginia.

Our colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates are among the highest while the state’s overall screening rate is one of the lowest in the country. Our WVU Cancer Institute is working to change that.

Through a new initiative, Cancer Institute staff will reach out to primary care offices throughout West Virginia and offer them resources that make it easier to identify and screen at-risk patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding this effort, and other partners include the American Cancer Society, Mountains of Hope, and our School of Public Health.

Partnerships generate immense power.

That is why our University is quashing the notion of regional and institutional competition.

Our relationships with Marshall University, the Charleston Area Medical Center, the School of Osteopathic Medicine and dozens of other partners in health education, research and healthcare are at an all-time high.

Just a few weeks ago, West Virginia University and Marshall together pledged $1.5 million to jumpstart healthcare research and delivery projects across the state.

We need to go from last to first in health: West Virginians have real health problems, we all have a responsibility to address them, and we do not care who gets the credit.

“Last to First Together,” a grassroots effort launching in Harrison County, is an ideal model.

The program is taking aim at six threats to health and well-being: poor nutrition, tobacco use, sedentary lifestyles, alcohol abuse, preventable injuries and drug abuse.

Public officials, health professionals, business and community leaders, representatives from all three state medical schools and concerned citizens have signed on to the effort.

Author Victor Hugo said: “There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

In West Virginia, our health is our future. Our educational system, our economy, and our very lives are in the balance. The time for talking is past. The time has come for real change. And that is what the Institute is all about—real change.

By ONE West Virginia.

For ONE West Virginia.

And for the future of us all.

Thank you for your vital contributions to our work.