Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Sue Cox, Chair of Medical Education at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin

Nupur Shah
Jun 9, 2016

Dr. Cox is Executive Vice Dean of Academics and Chair of Medical Education at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the President of the Alliance for Clinical Education, previously was Interim Senior Associate Dean of the Dell Medical School helping to establish the foundation for the new school and the incoming dean.

Prior to joining UT Austin, Dr. Cox worked with the UT Southwestern Medical School for 23 years, most recently as UT Southwestern Regional Dean of Austin Programs. Prior to her appointment as Regional Dean, she served as the Associate Dean of Medical Education and the ACGME Designated Institutional Official. Her duties included oversight of the 94 ACGME approved residency and fellowship programs, administrative responsibility for the University’s Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Public Education programs, Course Director of newly created UT Southwestern Academic Colleges, and oversight of the UT Southwestern/ Seton Austin Medical Education Programs.

Dr. Cox received her MD from Baylor College of Medicine (Houston, TX) in 1982. She completed postgraduate training in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor Medical Center (Houston, TX) in 1986 and Maternal and Fetal Medicine training at UT Southwestern Medical Center (Dallas, TX) in 1988. She is board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as Maternal Fetal Medicine.
What is your background and how did you get interested in medicine and in OB/GYN?
I grew up in Amarillo Texas and attended college on a bowling scholarship. After college, I attended graduate school pursuing a degree in cell biology and genetics. At this point in time I wanted to save the world of genetic disease; however, the disease that I studied had only three cases in the entire world. Clearly I would not be a savior. This is when I decided to attend medical school.

During college, I worked in the operating room and really enjoyed the camaraderie and the teaching and the practice of obstetrics and gynecology. I knew then if I ever went to medical school I would pursue a career in obstetrics and gynecology.

How did you become involved in medical education?
I became interested in medical education during my time in graduate school. We were expected to teach the medical students cell biology and run the cell biology and histology lab sessions. During my residency training in obstetrics and gynecology you could find me teaching the medical students all hours of the day and night both on the wards and in the call room. My career trajectory since training has taken me from teacher to clerkship director to maternal-fetal medicine program director and to Associate Dean of Medical Education at UT Southwestern. In this role I provided oversight to undergraduate medical education, graduate medical education and continuing medical education. Clearly the highlight of my career is happening now as Executive Vice Dean of Academics at the new Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. In summary, I love to teach and to see learners excited about learning.

My personal mission is to teach the next generation of doctors the “art of medicine”, i.e., quality clinical skills including a good bedside manner, caring doctor-patient relationships and professionalism. My aim is to provide the clinical foundation for the next generation of physician leaders, improving healthcare for all. Ultimately, my goal is to create a desire in each student to pursue life-long learning.

“The best teacher is not one who imparts his own knowledge, but rather leads students to the frontiers of their own minds.” – Anon

What do you believe is the toughest challenge we currently face in medical education? What are suggestions you have in dealing with those problems?
I’d say the toughest challenge is the reluctance to challenge outdated ways of thinking. So much of medicine has evolved over the past several decades, but we’ve changed very little about how we train doctors. Worse yet, many existing medical schools resist change because of legacy programs or practices that might be threatened.

At the Dell Medical School, we have a unique opportunity to design a medical education program entirely from scratch – since we’re creating everything, we really don’t have to change anything. That’s a luxury that existing medical schools don’t have. But as we and other schools demonstrate the effectiveness of new practices and procedures, other schools will start to embrace changes, if only to remain competitive.

What role did you play in the design of the Dell Medical School vision, and the cutting-edge curriculum? What was it like to be at the forefront of designing this program with the intention of "Dell Medical School: Rethink Everything", and specifically "Rethink health"? Why do you think it's important that we "rethink health"?
I was proud to lead the effort to develop the new curriculum. It was developed with the help of more than 250 physicians, education experts, students, UT Austin faculty members and other partners. We all worked from a unique mission: figuring out the best ways to train and support physician leaders who are as comfortable taking on transformational health challenges as they are in caring for patients. Developing the curriculum became an opportunity for a very smart, talented group of people to pull from the most innovative and effective teaching practices nationwide, and to craft a program that ensures our students’ education reflects the challenges of modern medicine and moves them toward solutions. That’s the idea behind Rethinking Everything: not to throw out everything that exists now, but rather to challenge the status quo and make sure that practices and programs are working the way they’re supposed to and if they are not, exploring ways to fix them.

This is an opportunity to "create a new culture of professionals", "a new kind of physician" as the Dell Medical School leadership team described in the informational video; moreover, the leadership team describes their vision of developing a community of physicians that are "team players, innovators with strong leadership traits, and students excited about what they are doing". I feel as though you are capturing the essence of why individuals pursue medical school in the first place and harnessing this energy to develop the next generation of medical leaders, thinkers, and innovators. What will be the measures to determine success?
We’ll watch how well students are learning and performing with the self-directed teaching strategies and integrated training programs we’re creating. Another important benchmark, I think, will be the ideas that students come forward with during the third-year Innovation, Leadership and Discovery Year – I can’t wait to see what kinds of transformational projects our students take on. We all know that students and this generation have no fears and since our curriculum is rooted in our relationship with the community and the health challenges they face, I think we’ll see pretty quickly how well these projects present real-world solutions.

I noticed that the inaugural class size at Dell Medical School is 50; What role do you think the faculty/student ratio plays at the medical school level?, and will play at the Dell Medical School?
We’ve tailored our curriculum to help students learn in ways that play to their strengths and help them to succeed. Obviously, the low faculty/student ratio is one factor that helps ensure students are getting the attention and training they need to become great physician leaders – but it’s only one of many. I’m happy with our low faculty/student ratio and I’m confident that it will remain at a level that helps students learn. But we’re also instituting a number of other strategies – from long-term mentoring programs to small group learning strategies to an innovative and dedicated Student Affairs team – to ensure that students are learning in the best possible ways and receiving the support they need.

Any advice/recommendations you would like to share for the current and incoming students entering medical school today?
Be prepared to be more than just a doctor. To really make a difference, today’s physicians need to be creative leaders who are as focused on the health of a community as they are on the health of a patient. They will still need to be very comfortable with traditional ways of practicing medicine and have the ability to perform the diagnoses and procedures that work, but they also need to challenge those that don’t work and come up with creative approaches that work better. They also need to embrace teamwork so they’ll look for ways to employ other people’s skills in helping to treat patients and keep people healthy. And they need to have a broader, holistic vision that looks at all of the factors that determine a person’s physical, mental and emotional health – not just the specific illness or injury that brought them to the doctor’s office.