Program Report: Dr. Eugene Washington – Duke University Health System

Back in the early 80’s Durham proclaimed itself the City of Medicine largely based on the presence of Duke University’s hospital, research and medical school. This was promoted successfully by the Chamber of Commerce. As the community has grown and established itself as one of the more desirable places in the country to live, the use of this designation has faded. Even at the time, there was a school of thought that this might have been a little off key.  If you’re a doctor, your association with the word “medicine” was your vocation, the noble practice of curing the sick. For others the immediate association is something, often unpleasant, that you take when you are sick.

On Monday our speaker was Dr. Eugene Washington, who succeeded Victor Dzau as Duke University Chancellor for Health Affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System. Dr. Washington is an internationally renowned clinical researcher and health policy scholar and came to Duke from a similar position at UCLA.

Dr. Washington was introduced by Past President MaryAnn Black, who works closely with him as an Associate Vice President for Community Affairs at the Health System. Her two-page introduction was playfully cut off by Dr. Washington who complained to her that she was cutting into his time. He also joked about being a PK (preacher’s kid) before he launched into the explanation for why the emphasis is changing from Duke Medicine to Duke Health.

The challenge in this country that he outlined is that our country has the highest costs and below average health measures in the developed world. Unfortunately, medicine is only one factor in determining health and not a very big one at that…about 10% according to Dr. Washington. He elicited thoughts from his audience on what the other factors might be. At the top of the list is behavior, then social and economic conditions, the environment and, of course, genetics.

So, what do you do besides change the name of your institution to promote better health? The approach Duke is using is to identify populations that they can focus on and develop strategies. Diabetics, for example are often helped by educating them and helping them modify their diets. He also mentioned patients with asthma in this category. The second category is the Duke community itself and he broke the news that in July Duke will be a smoke free institution campus wide, including students. This initiative is called Healthy Duke.

And finally, there is the Durham Community and Dr. Washington said that the first order of business was to find a replacement for the retiring Phail Wynn, the vice president of Duke for Durham and Regional Affairs and that he was chairing the search committee at Duke to do that.

Dr. Washington took several questions including one that may have been tongue-in-cheek about the wisdom of putting an emphasis on these other factors involved in health when medicine is what pays the bill. The answer is that even with people living longer healthier lives eventually the needs arise.

We are very fortunate to have one of the leading health providers in the world here in Durham and the club was honored to have its leader present his broad vision of the direction that health care must go, especially with such humor and charm. We hope he will return and visit the Club often.

Since MaryAnn’s introduction was cut short, more information about Dr. Washington can be found in several places among Duke’s websites including this biographical page.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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