University of Texas System regents are expected on Thursday to tap the system’s endowment for $45.8 million to underwrite three high-priority initiatives, including creating a statewide telemedicine network that would allow patients in rural areas to get specialty care without driving hundreds of miles.
The Board of Regents, meeting in Galveston, is also poised to approve spending intended to boost research at four universities, as well as to recruit and retain outstanding faculty members at all 14 health and academic campuses.
The three initiatives are among the top priorities of system Chancellor Bill McRaven, which makes it all but certain that the board will grant approval during its meeting at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston. The initiatives would be underwritten by the Permanent University Fund, a multibillion-dollar higher education endowment overseen by the board.
The proposed UT System Virtual Health Network would be seeded with $10.8 million in endowment proceeds over four years for equipment and technical support. It would build on the system’s existing telemedicine capabilities for providing specialty care through advanced video conferencing. UTMB physicians have practiced telemedicine for more than 20 years, delivering health services remotely to Texas prison inmates, offshore oil workers, researchers in Antarctica and others. UTMB has logged an annual average of 99,000 physician-to-patient telemedicine encounters in recent years.
Raymond Greenberg, the system’s executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said in an interview that the proposed network would make it possible for a specialist in one location to see a patient accompanied by his primary care doctor or other health-care provider in another location. The specialist can hear the patient’s heartbeat and can have the health care provider perform tests and some hands-on examination, Greenberg said.
“Texas should really be the poster child for telemedicine with its huge geographic distances and concentrations of where the specialists are,” Greenberg said.
The UT System’s six health campuses would participate in the network, and, when they come on line, so would new medical schools at UT-Austin and UT-Rio Grande Valley. The health campuses of the Texas A&M University System, the Texas Tech University System and the University of North Texas System could also participate, he said.
The faculty-funding initiative would provide $30 million in endowment-backed bond proceeds for recruiting and retaining professors. That would be on top of $30 million previously approved by the regents in the current budget under the program, dubbed Faculty STARs, for Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention.
The initiative, established by the regents in 2004, focused initially on established researchers, but expanded in 2010 to include entry-level candidates, dubbed Rising STARs. The money may be used only for lab renovations and research equipment. Under the proposal before the regents, $20 million would be allocated for entry-level faculty members and $10 million for senior researchers.
The latest UT System records show that 210 faculty members were recruited in the first seven years of the STARs program at a cost to the system of $143 million. Those researchers generated $1.3 billion in federal and other funding for research, for a net return on investment of about $1 billion after accounting for partial matching recruitment funds from the campuses, said Patricia Hurn, vice chancellor for research and innovation. System officials are gathering data for an updated report to be presented in August, she said.
(On a separate track, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that his office is accepting applications from public universities for grants matched by the universities from the $38 million Governor’s University Research Initiative. The initiative, approved last year by the Legislature, gives top priority to recruiting Nobel laureates and members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.)
The UT regents are expected to allocate $5 million in endowment-backed bonds to improve laboratories and other research infrastructure at UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-El Paso and UT-San Antonio, all classified by the state as emerging research universities. The funding is intended to stimulate private donations, with larger donations garnering a larger match from the UT System. Since the program was established in 2010, the UT board has doled out $40 million, with UT-Dallas earning the biggest share, $27.9 million.