Commentary: Dell Medical School delivers on promise of healthier city

Five years ago, Travis County voters did something powerful: They created a medical school funded by local property tax dollars with an unprecedented focus on the community — especially those who’ve suffered from health inequities.

The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas is still a startup. I arrived as dean in 2014; last summer, our first building opened and our first students started class.

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Yet, the visionary investment of Travis County residents is already creating a strong return for people with low incomes, without insurance and from historically underserved communities. Working with Central Health, the health care district serving the county; Seton Healthcare Family, a member of Ascension; and our remarkable local physicians, Dell Med has:

• Enabled more community physicians: Thanks to expansions that happened through Dell Med’s creation and Seton partnership, the number of medical residents providing care in clinics and hospitals grew 32 percent; from 218 in 2012 to 287 today.

• Reduced wait times. For people with low incomes or without insurance, wait times dropped from more than a year to less than a month for those with painful hips and knees, and by more than four weeks for women living with issues such as incontinence or bladder pain.

• Redesigned prenatal and postnatal care. Through a program designed by Dell Med leaders, every woman getting prenatal care in Central Health-affiliated clinics benefits from an improved standard of patient-centered care.

• Launched improved cancer screening. The school received $2.3 million to fund colorectal cancer screening for the population served by Central Health; Dell Med also launched a Department of Oncology alongside its Livestrong Cancer Institutes.

• Focused on mental and behavioral health: Dell Med is helping lead the Austin State Hospital campus redevelopment by working to improve mental and behavioral health in the community.

• Supported community partners: Through the school’s Call for Ideas, nearly 100 people from across the community — including historically underserved areas — have submitted ideas to address serious health problems. Dell Med is helping develop 10 of them and has announced a second Call for Ideas.

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That’s a half-dozen examples of dividends from this investment. There are many more. Some are laid out in a Dell Med and Central Health report demonstrating how the school uses $35 million it receives annually through the agency. You can read it at

As a brand-new organization, Dell Med used these funds for startup investments, primarily in people who are launching departments and programs that make our community healthier. Our local funding does not pay for buildings. We are committed to working with Central Health, Travis County, the city of Austin and the public on data-driven metrics showing the return on this investment. Already, it is multiplying through additional federal money, state and UT System support, grants and philanthropy.

It’s not just that the community benefits from this work; it’s the way Dell Med creates that benefit.

Voters could have passed a health initiative that wasn’t centered on a medical school. They could have put money into an indigent care system that, as in most places across the country, wasn’t keeping up with the needs of people relying on it.

But that’s not what we did. Instead, among other improvements, we created something that brings together faculty physicians, students, medical residents, support staff and community partners to design new way — and train new doctors — to improve care in Travis County.

A medical school isn’t just another hospital or clinic duplicating care that’s available elsewhere. Dell Med was created to make care better by using models, people and discoveries that improve health outcomes and lower costs. Our mission is to revolutionize how people get and stay healthy.

It’s heartening that, barely three years in, we’re beginning to fulfill that mission. With time and more hard work, the impact will be even clearer.

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Johnston is inaugural dean of the Dell Medical School.

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