By Tamara Robinson
UAMS welcomed Susan Smyth, M.D., Ph.D., as executive vice chancellor and dean of the College of Medicine on June 1. We sat down with Dr. Smyth for a Q&A to help team members and friends of the College of Medicine get to know this new leader of medicine in Arkansas. Our conversation ranged from Dr. Smyth’s insights on the college’s evolving role in improving health in Arkansas, to her path to becoming a highly regarded cardiologist and researcher, to how she enjoys spending her free time.
What is the most pressing challenge for health and health care in Arkansas, and what will be the College of Medicine’s role in addressing it?
Our most urgent challenge is to turn the tide on COVID-19 and do everything we can to protect our patients, students, colleagues and loved ones. The more highly contagious Delta variant of the virus is rapidly gaining ground in Arkansas, and this strain is making more unvaccinated people severely ill. I urge our team members and their families who aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated right away. And all of us must remain vigilant about wearing our mask in public and when we’re around others at UAMS. It is important to follow established safety protocols. We cannot become complacent.
Aside from COVID-19, I think the most pressing and longer-term challenge for our state is the issue of health equity, and particularly the large health disparities we have in rural and underserved communities. It is imperative for us to ensure the best possible health and equitable access to excellent health care for every Arkansan.
Health equity crosses all health issues and diseases, and our college’s role in solving these complex issues is multifactorial. First and foremost, we have an essential role in educating and training physicians for Arkansas, and that means individuals who are well prepared to address these challenges and to work with communities to eliminate health inequities.
With health equity as an important focus, how will our work as educators, clinicians and scientists in academic medicine change?
Part of this is will mean training our students – and training all of us – to look at health and disease prevention through a slightly different lens. Historically, physicians have been incredibly well trained to take care of individuals, and that needs to continue. We will always be committed to looking at how we can best meet the needs of each patient.
However, we must also become adept in thinking about how to best meet the needs of the population and communities. Consider the analogies between caring for the individual and caring for the population. We are accustomed to hearing from an individual patient and collecting data – vital signs, clinical laboratory data, imaging data – and having a conversation with the patient about their various issues and options for care, and then coming together around a treatment plan.
We need to be able to do the same thing at a community level. And when we say ‘community,’ we can mean people in a certain area, or patients with similar health conditions and risks, demographics and so on. From the clinical, scholarly and educational perspectives, population health and addressing social determinants of health will become increasingly important in our work.
What are the challenges of this newer approach to improving health?
Some of the key questions are how do we collect, interpret, share and utilize health information about a community? Increasingly, there are data resources available to tell us about populations. Armed with this information, it is important to engage with the community and have conversations around their values. What do they see as important? As with caring for an individual patient, it is very important to come to shared decision-making that leads to a healthier community and population.
To do this effectively for communities, we need to train and educate ourselves differently. We must support more research that helps us better understand the best options and strategies for improving health at the community level, and how to effectively implement solutions. We also must continue to develop partnerships and relationships with our communities that allow us to have those conversations, much as we build our relationships with individual patients. Our partners will include community groups, churches, hospitals, other health care organizations, civic groups and many others. It will take the entirety of the infrastructure to tackle some of these challenges.
So, this is what I see as the future of health care, and really, what I believe is the future of our college – to prepare all of us to take on that role.
As you have met team members and learned more about the College of Medicine and UAMS in your initial weeks here, what has surprised or impressed you the most?
I have been impressed with the caliber of our faculty and staff and excellence in all mission areas – education, research and clinical care. The collegiality and kindness at UAMS has really struck me, as well as the dedication of individuals and the institution as a whole to the people of Arkansas. I had a sense of that from the interviews prior to my appointment, and frankly, that’s why I’m here. Hook, line and sinker, I am all in for making our core vision of a healthier Arkansas a reality.
I earned my medical degree and my doctorate in pharmacology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and later began my career in academic medicine there. I am tremendously grateful to my home state for everything it did for me during my career, and I greatly appreciate the unique role a public, state university has. The opportunity to impact lives across a state is incredibly powerful and really what we at public academic medical centers have a mission and a calling to do.
Team UAMS is living up to this calling for the state of Arkansas. The commitment to solving health and equity issues, to giving back to the state of Arkansas, is clear and compelling. I am thrilled to work with everyone in the College of Medicine and UAMS in this pursuit.
When did you know you wanted to become a doctor – and a physician-scientist?
I’m not entirely sure how I came to the decision to become a doctor, but I can say that sometime in my senior year of high school, I decided that I was going to be a physician-scientist. I loved my biology class, and I entered college with the goal of preparing myself to be an M.D./Ph.D. Interestingly, there was not another doctor in my family at the time, and I did not personally know an M.D./Ph.D. My grandparents were both teachers, my mom was an elementary school teacher, and my dad was a philosophy professor.
What drew you to your clinical specialty of cardiology and your research focusing on arterial and venous thrombosis?
Like many physician-scientists, I enjoy a whole bunch of different things. While in medical school, I really liked my rotations in different clinical areas, and it took me a while to come to the decision to do my residency in internal medicine.
During residency, I was struggling to narrow down my future to one specialty. Then, the blood thinner ReoPro (abciximab) received FDA approval for use in patients undergoing coronary stent implantation. ReoPro is a monoclonal antibody that works against a major platelet receptor, and I had worked with that antibody while researching blood clotting as a graduate student. I remember working in the coronary care unit and giving ReoPro to a patient. I recall thinking, if I want to merge my scientific interests in preventing thrombosis with clinical care, the place to do this in in cardiology. It was really the development of that drug that made me see the connection between my scientific and clinical interests. Cardiology is a great specialty for me because we cover many facets of care and I have had the chance to have long-term relationships with patients as well as manage critical illness.
Later, as a cardiology fellow at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the physician who developed ReoPro, Dr. Barry Coller. Dr. Coller is world-renowned and an incredibly compassionate physician, and he became one of my key mentors. The drug he developed, and that class of therapeutics, has saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, lives. The opportunity to work with such a person – it changed my career and my life.
Switching gears on questions now. You and your husband, Andrew Morris, Ph.D., a renowned lipid metabolism and signaling researcher, aren’t the only family members joining us at UAMS.
Right! Our English labs, Carmine and Selah, have had distinguished careers as therapy dogs at the University of Kentucky, and we can hardly wait to introduce them and put them to work at UAMS. They have their own Facebook pages, so our Arkansas friends can start to meet Selah and Carmine if they would like.
Carmine is part of a mobility team, so he walks with patients. He encourages patients, for example, to get up and sit in a chair, and then to move from the chair. We have had patients who weren’t out of bed for months, and Carmine enticed them first to get to the chair, and then to get up and walk with him. Carmine is the most laid-back dog you can imagine.
Selah, on the other hand, is very engaging. In Kentucky, she worked with stroke patients on motor skills by bouncing a ball back and forth with them. She’ll jump onto their bed and let them brush her to work on hand and arm movements. She will step up and down on platforms to demonstrate movements.
We also have a Maine Coon cat, Bernadette, who rules the house and keeps both dogs in place.
What do you like to do in your spare time? Have you had a chance to explore some of Arkansas yet?
I love to read and enjoy cooking and gardening. Of course, we do frequent walks with the dogs. We are very excited about moving them to our new neighborhood in Little Rock and have been counting all the other dogs we see on our neighborhood walks. We had a great time in Hot Springs recently and are really looking forward to seeing the rest of Arkansas.
OK, here are some quick and quirky questions. What was the latest TV show you watched?
“Mare of Easttown.” My show watching is a bit eclectic. I love Jane Austen, period dramas and “Masterpiece Theatre,” HGTV, and am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and “Game of Thrones.”
What makes you laugh?
My husband, Andrew, and our two sons. They all have different personalities and senses of humor. Andrew is one of the best satirists that I know.
What would surprise people about you?
I am really into P!nk – how she empowers women and encourages folks to color outside the lines really resonates with me. And, wow, can she sing.
Who would be your guests (anyone living or deceased) for a cup of tea and conversation?
Goodness gracious. There are so many choices. Abraham Lincoln. Einstein. Martin Luther King Jr. I would love to talk to Mary Lyon, the founder of my undergraduate college, Mount Holyoke, which was the first institution of higher education for women in the country. I would love to hear her passion, first hand, about education for women. Probably Madame Curie, as a female scientist. Those are some of the folks I would love to sit down and talk with.
This interview was previously published on the UAMS College of Medicine website. Used with persmission.