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Envisioning the Future of Medical Education: Dr. Tim Ridgway, Dean of the USD Sanford School of Medicine

Oct 21, 2020 07:00AM ● By MED Magazine

On September 1st, Sioux Falls gastroenterologist and USD Sanford School of Medicine graduate Tim Ridgway, MD, was named Vice President of Health Affairs and the medical school's new dean. Dr. Ridgway is well-known in the region, having practiced in the state since 1991, and is the recipient of many awards and accolades, including the South Dakota State Medical Association's Presidential Award in 2017. He is also a familiar face in the medical school as the previous executive dean, dean of faculty affairs, and a professor in the internal medicine department. 

He takes the helm at a truly unprecedented time in American healthcare and medical education. We spoke with him just a month into his new position to get his insights so far.  True-to-form, Dr. Ridgway is facing the new challenge with optimism, pragmatism, and a dose of good humor. 

MED: Has it been an aspiration of yours to be a medical school dean?

TR: When I first went to med school and came out and practiced I was going to see patients and do procedures for the rest of my life. But I found in education what I see as an even greater purpose. I am not a person who said 'I want to be a dean' and applied to deanships around the country. I was very happy in my role as dean of faculty. But when this position came up, I just knew that I wanted to be dean of this school because the school gave a small town kid from Ravinia, South Dakota the chance to pursue a dream. 

MED: You decided to leave your position as a staff physician at the VA when you took over as dean. Why was that?

TR: I know some deans have continued to practice. In theory, it would be great. But this job is so all-encompassing that it would not get the attention it deserves. It was a hard decision for me but, after a month on the job, I can already see that it was the right one. And, in a way, I feel like I am still doing what I was called to do - take care of patients. I'm preparing future doctors to take care of us. It is a natural progression to help ensure that South Dakota patients continue to get high quality care for years to come.

MED: This has been a strange year for education in general. At USD, classes had to move online and medical students had to pull out of clinical rotations for a while. What have you learned from the pandemic?

TR: We have learned some incredible things. One thing is that some of the foundational courses can be taught online and that allows us to better utilize expert faculty from around the whole state. They can just Zoom in for an hour and impart their wisdom. When we started guiding students through clinical material online, students ranked these sessions much higher than face to face.

The other thing is faculty development. We would try to bring people in for half-day seminars and you might get a core group of these busy physicians to attend. Now that we are doing it online, we are getting much more participation. Even in our facility alone, we have quadrupled the number of people who show up for meetings because they don't have to come to the medical school.

MED: And how about the students? Do you think they have learned something from the challenges of this year?

TR: All of these students are going to face some form of adversity in the future. One of my goals is to produce students who are knowledgeable and intelligent but also have a holistic approach including how to communicate well and how to handle difficulties. If they feel confident about these things, they are going to be more willing to serve. 

MED: Even before the pandemic, healthcare was in a state of turmoil, with disgruntled patients and burned out physicians. How do you see this turning around?

TR: The solution lies in our physicians. We need to step up and provide guidance for new doctors about how they are going to improve the healthcare system and improve the health of this country. Part of the problem is that my generation was instructed in how to take a history and make a diagnosis and provide treatment. But we didn't get any training in healthcare policy. Physicians today need to be more than just providers of healthcare to patients. They also need to have the tools, knowledge and language to help direct how that healthcare is delivered. 

MED: What does that mean for medical education?

TR: The curriculum needs to evolve. It has to include training in holistic health leadership, so that this new generation can help shape future healthcare policy. If COVID has taught us anything, it is the value of a public health knowledge base. We are seeing the need for experts in public health firsthand. So these are the types of things that we need to give our students. These kids really do have a call to service. If we do everything in our power to let our students fulfill their potential, everything else is going to take care of itself. 

MED: And what about you, personally? What have you learned after a month on the job?

TR: The thing I kind of knew but that has really, really come to the forefront one month in is that being a leader in health science is less about the technical things, like initiating a program, and more about the people, including our faculty and the health systems that we rely on. It's about listening to them and interacting with them and understanding them as we all work together toward a common goal.