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  March 25, 2002

Health Center Column
The Huskies' success in basketball offers lessons we can apply in other University endeavors.

It is a happening that, in these parts, goes by many names. Some refer to it as March Madness; others call it Huskymania; and for still others it is known simply as Hoopla.

Call it what you will but ignore it at your peril. For four weeks this time every year, a pleasant sort of paralysis overcomes a percentage of Connecticut's population, as we become transfixed on college basketball in general and UConn basketball in particular.

Image: Peter J. Deckers
Peter J. Deckers

As you read this, maybe, just maybe, both the UConn men's and women's teams will still be alive in their tournaments. After all, success in the tournaments is not only good for the programs and the University, but deep down inside most UConn basketball fans flat out enjoy the excitement and inner glow that comes from backing a winner. There is no denying that the desire to stand behind a winner, whether in sports or any other human endeavor, is a trait that has been synonymous with mankind since the beginning of time. For proof, just ask any long-suffering follower of Red Sox baseball, including myself.

When it comes to academic medicine, people are no different. They want to stand on the side of success, not mediocrity, and certainly not on the side of failure.

As I watched both UConn teams convincingly win their Big East tournaments and move positively into the NCAAs, I couldn't help but think how similar success on the basketball court is to success at an academic medical center. I'm not suggesting there is a simple recipe for winning in basketball or in academic medicine. There are, however, elements that have contributed to UConn's basketball success that we can learn from and apply to our activities at the Health Center.

Recruitment of Talent
It means as much to the Health Center to attract skilled, experienced faculty and staff as it does for our basketball teams to land a dominating center or a savvy point guard. Recruitment is an ongoing, competitive and inexact science. When a highly sought-after researcher-educator-clinician such as Bruce Liang joins us from the University of Pennsylvania to lead our growing cardiology program, we are instantly a better place. We have seen again and again that talent attracts talent and raises the bar of quality within our organization. Witness the more than 45 new faculty recruited during the past seven years into various aspects of our strategic plan.

Retention of Talent
It is never acceptable to limit one's sights on attracting new talent through the front door, if good people are slipping out the back door. Like fans everywhere, Husky followers lament what could have been whenever a star player leaves prematurely. At the Health Center, we know how critical it is to hold on to our talented people. While our new recruits often receive the spotlight, ultimately our strength lies in the work performed by our longtime faculty and staff. I find great satisfaction, for example, in the fact that one of the most impressive research accomplishments at the Health Center in years has been achieved by a long-standing member of our faculty. As announced in February, the gene responsible for open-angle glaucoma was recently identified by a team led by Mansoor Sarfarazi, who joined the Health Center in 1988.

Aggressive, Team-Oriented Goals
Whether it is achieving a 20-win season, reaching the NCAA tournament, or even going undefeated, our basketball teams have built a tradition of success because they work hard to accomplish aggressive, team-oriented goals.

There is a three-part lesson to be learned from this: First, set goals that are difficult to reach.

Second, make sure the goals are truly for the good of the organization and not based on individual needs or desires.

Third, work together and tirelessly to achieve them. I could cite several examples of where we are replicating that approach, but one effort in particular comes quickly to mind. Susan Whetstone, our chief administrative officer, has led the multi-disciplinary charge to identify financial improvements throughout our organization. That is far from easy, when one considers the dwindling reimbursements confronting academic medical centers. Yet Susan, with the help and support of many others, has achieved $18 million in financial improvements since 2000. Not wanting to rest on our laurels, I've challenged Susan and her team to accomplish even more over the next 18 months. I'm fully confident she will.

External Support
In running big-time basketball programs, much needed external support comes via a pool of individual and corporate sponsors and an enthusiastic, growing base of fans. Win or lose, it just wouldn't be the same if the Huskies were to play in tiny gyms before small crowds, with no television or radio coverage. We in academic medicine require continuous external support as well. We rely upon patients, donors, state-derived general fund income, and grants and contracts attained through private, corporate and government sources. Moreover, as a public institution, we must foster especially strong ties with our elected officials at local, state and federal levels.

As we have seen, if we take our eye off the ball - even for a moment - we risk losing support. There is no such thing as too much external support. Because we need all the "fans" we can get, every day is "fan appreciation day" at the Health Center, and each of us has an ongoing responsibility to help attract "fans" to our program. Most often, this is easily done by being available, affable and informative. "Remarkable Care Through Research and Education" resonates with everyone, because it is responsive to their core need, good health.

Please accept my apologies if I have overused the basketball analogies. I merely hope to take advantage of March Madness to illustrate that winning and success have common roots, regardless of the venture or the venue. We can not only take pleasure from UConn basketball, but inspiration.

Be peaceful (and go Huskies!).

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