Forging the Way: TAMEST Member Profile of Nancy W. Dickey, M.D. (NAM)

Selda Gunsel Profile

Nancy W. Dickey, M.D. (NAM), credits early exposure to the health care environment as a nurse’s aide in high school and a desire to prove wrong those who said she couldn’t become a doctor for pushing her toward her dreams. Born in South Dakota, Dr. Dickey married a Texan and has dedicated her career to the issues of rural health and team science in Texas.

President Emeritus of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and Executive Director of Texas A&M’s Rural and Community Health Institute, Dr. Dickey was the first woman, and (at the time) youngest individual, to be elected president of the American Medical Association (AMA) at the age of just 47. Dr. Dickey is a member of TAMEST and will chair the TAMEST 2021 Annual Conference: Forward Texas—Community Health and Well-Being on January 12–14, 2021, in San Antonio.

Dr. Dickey connected with TAMEST to share more about her long-standing career in medicine and her hopes for TAMEST 2021:

Why are you leading the TAMEST 2021 Conference: Forward Texas—Community Health and Well-Being?

I am attracted to [the] breadth of this topic and the opportunity to examine a very hot issue from such a wide variety of perspectives. It is my hope that we can approach topics ranging from health care, infrastructure and education with new eyes and thus come up with new solutions. Being able to take advantage of the wide scope of community health and well-being will enable the diverse group that makes up TAMEST to participate in the sharing of those perspectives across what can at times become siloed approaches to common problems.

What do you hope people walk away knowing about community health and well-being?

The health of our communities is a very broad topic and yet it is perhaps ultimately what each of us is working on…from conquering illness to enhancing performance to creating safer and faster and easier transport from one place to another to improving the quality of the air and water so that our time on earth is healthier and more enjoyable.

Finding crosswalks among our different perspectives is powerful. It is my hope that TAMEST 2021 will generate new conversations, enliven existing conversations and lead to innovative possibilities. 

Talk about your work with the A&M Rural and Community Health Institute. 

The institute is 16 years old and our work began with reaching out to small rural hospitals to see how we could help meet the ever-increasing demands for reporting, quality tracking, safety improvements, and more.

We have contracted a variety of services with over 90 hospitals in Texas over the last decade and a half. About five years ago, we became increasingly concerned about the number of small rural hospitals (especially in Texas) that were closing, leaving their communities and often their counties without proximal access to care. We have developed a team of individuals who are working with communities across the United States to try to help identify steps that small hospitals can take to improve their breadth of service and enhance their bottom line in an effort to stem the number of closures. A recent study made the importance of preserving local care very obvious when it showed that closing a rural hospital increases mortality by 6 percent.

What do you wish more people knew about your work? 

I think the most compelling reasons to want others to know about our work is that medicine and health care work best when it is a team proposition. While keeping rural facilities open is important, the highly technological aspects of much of medical care means that many patients will have to be transferred into more specialized care.

Once that highly specialized care is given, those patients should be sent back home to convalesce/rehabilitate near home where there are family, friends and social support systems. Recuperation has been demonstrated to improve when those social aspects of recovery are available. However, too few in the continuum of care know or understand WHAT can be done in a small hospital and WHY it is important to facilitate transfer back home. And much in the payment policies actually discourage such return home…from the perspective of the large hospital and/or the specialists providing the tertiary care. Understanding one another’s roles and collaborating on behalf of our patients should improve the outcomes.

And with respect to the breadth of expertise in TAMEST, there are many perspectives that might prove powerful in maintaining local access to health care—transportation, self-monitoring, changes in design and architecture to better weave health and healthcare into one, and more.

What advice would you give to people starting out in STEM careers?

Certainly, STEM careers offer tremendous opportunities in terms of employment, challenge and advancement. However, I would also encourage our science-minded youth to explore the breadth of what they are seeking in a career. Having a background in psychology and sociology has been very helpful to me. And having a broad liberal arts background often complements the science training in unexpected ways.

Because STEM careers can be very competitive, I often encourage people to ask themselves what they would do if someone told them they would never be allowed to progress in what they see as their first-choice career. For example, if you would never get into medical school, what would be your next choice of career? We take people into medical school with a wide variety of backgrounds, but a strict pre-med degree often does not prepare you for much besides applying to professional school.

What value do you think TAMEST brings to Texas? 

Bringing together the brightest minds in the state is a benefit for Texas. We should be a “go-to” organization when our policymakers are facing difficult choices that are impacted by science. That is why the academies were created nationally and TAMEST should be a microcosm of that for the state. It should remain one of our goals that we establish ourselves as that resource here in Texas.

Why do you work and live in Texas?

Well, first and foremost, I married a Texan…and they don’t transplant easily. But I love the independence, the vast variety of what is offered across the state – geographically, culturally, socially.

And now my children and grandchildren all live in Texas, so their proximity is important.

 

TAMEST The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas