Texas Tech’s Health Sciences Center in El Paso became an independent, full-fledged university in May, the system’s fourth, and cardiologist Richard Lange became its founding president in July.
That means Lange is in charge of a budding medical school, nursing school, research labs, clinics and the brand new Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
And it will be his job to grow the young schools and create a vision for their future.
A new building for the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing is under construction and is set to open in December. Lange envisions expanding the school’s enrollment, which stands at 105 students, to 600.
The Paul L. Foster School of Medicine graduated its second class in May and its research funding now totals $27 million. In August, the Texas Tech board of regents approved a Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Lange, 58, was born in Anchorage, Alaska. His father was in the Air Force and the family moved a lot.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of North Texas where he met his wife, Joy Bobette. They married while Lange was in medical school at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas.
In 2004, Lange moved to Maryland to serve as chief of clinical cardiology and the E. Andrus Cowles Professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There he received a number of teaching awards from students, residents and fellows.
Lange has also been president of the Texas American Heart Association and has published more than 300 journal articles and book chapters on heart-related topics.
Most recently, Lange was vice chair of medicine and director of educational programs at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio.
As a tenured professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Lange led an effort to increase research funding there and establish new satellite clinical programs.
He also launched a podcast called PodMed, which is now one of the world’s most popular medical podcasts.
Lange and his wife have three children and two grandchildren. He has the deep, reassuring voice of a doctor, an athletic build and thick crop of silver hair.
Besides his job as president of Texas Tech El Paso, he also serves as dean of the medical school.
Lange steps into the job at a volatile time for Texas Tech and its hospital partners. Texas Tech has had a partnership with the county hospital, University Medical Center, for decades and recently partnered with Tenet Healthcare Corp., which is building a new teaching hospital on the Westside.
Texas Tech is a significant source of physicians and residents for UMC, and, in return, UMC is a significant source of revenue for Texas Tech’s med school.
But the relationship between the two, located within walking distance of each other, has been rocky lately. The issue came to a head in February when it came to light that UMC had severed ties with Texas Tech’s anesthesiology department.
In his first sit-down interview in El Paso, Lange talked with El Paso Inc. about rebuilding relationships, why he became a doctor, the latest advancements in cardiology and how the medical profession is changing.
Q: What is your first order of business?
What I ask for is a sort of 90-day grace period before laying out any plans. Right now, I’m learning as much as I can. We have a three-part mission: education, research and clinical care. My goals are to make sure we excel in all of those areas and we’re not mediocre in any one.
A great foundation has already been laid. The medical school education here is, in my opinion, second to none in the United States.
Q: Second to none? That’s a bold statement.
The LCME (Liaison Committee on Medical Education) recently looked at new medical schools that are establishing themselves or revising their curriculum, and they listed what they considered to be the top 10 curriculums – those medical school curriculums in the United States to emulate. Ours was second.
Q: What do you make of the relationship between Texas Tech and University Medical Center? It has been rocky and you’ve stepped right into that situation. What is your strategy to ease tensions?
It’s critical to our medical center that all of our partners are healthy and vibrant. University Medical Center needs to be a fantastic hospital and El Paso Children’s Hospital and our other hospital partners like Tenet need to be as well. The challenge is how we can best pull together as a group.
I actually think we’re more aligned than separate. The key is finding out where those areas are and making sure we all pull in the same direction.
I have met with all the leaders at all our hospital partners. We’ve agreed to be honest and forthright in our communication and to be as supportive for one another as well.
Q: Do you have a sense as to why the relationship became rocky?
I wasn’t a part of that, so it’s hard for me to say.
Q: Do you feel that University Medical Center has deviated from its educational mission?
That hasn’t been my experience here. Obviously, before I got here, there was an issue with the anesthesiologist department…
Q: Right. UMC severed its ties with Texas Tech’s anesthesiology department in February.
I’ll be quite frank. It was a sore spot here in the community. In my meetings with (UMC CEO) Jim Valenti, he’s been supportive of our educational mission and with our clinical partnership as well. I have every reason to believe that is so.
Q: El Paso Children’s Hospital is in financial trouble and owes University Medical Center a good deal of money. UMC recently had to lay off some staff. Do you have any thoughts on that as well?
I’m encouraged because we have recruited some outstanding physicians, both pediatricians and also some subspecialists as well. The hospitals we partner with have been a great training ground for students and provided great clinical experience as well.
Q: The challenge is affording those pediatricians and subspecialists. There has to be demand.
Yeah. They’re working through all those issues right now. Everybody I talked to, both in the community and at all the hospitals, want it to work and I’m confident it will.
Q: El Paso Children’s Hospital isn’t going anywhere?
Q: Your students need somewhere to go to do their clinical rotations. Is there enough space for them to do that right now?
We have partnered with Tenet, which is building a new teaching hospital on the Westside. The plan is to have that hospital up and going in two years. Between University Medical Center and the new Westside hospital, there will be enough space for our students to do their clinical rotations.
Q: How are graduates doing?
The graduates are doing very well. They’re doing well in terms of getting their residencies and performing very well. We’re very proud of that.
Q: Being on the border, is the curriculum here any different from any other medical school?
There are many aspects that are different. The medical school here starts earlier than most. Students have three weeks of immersion classes that begin even before any medical education. It’s like a three-week boot camp.
They’re instructed in Spanish language and cultural sensitivities, and I’m not aware of any other medical school that does that.
Students also start seeing patients earlier on. When I trained, the first two years you spent the whole time on books. Now, they’re seeing patients within the second or third week. They use simulation and trained actors. The whole thing is just phenomenal.
In San Antonio, we just undertook curriculum reform, before I came to El Paso. They have already incorporated many of the things that are in place at the El Paso medical school because they realized the value of them.
Q: We talk a lot about physician recruitment in El Paso because there has been a doctor shortage here for some time. Do the doctors being trained at Texas Tech El Paso often stay in El Paso?
About 40 to 50 percent of practitioners in El Paso have at one point or another gone through Texas Tech. That’s a pretty remarkable thing.
In our current medical school class of 104 students, 23 are from the El Paso area – about a fourth. I call that a success.
Q: Do you want to keep expanding enrollment or is that a sweet spot?
We think that is a sweet spot right now, so we’re focusing our efforts on other areas. For example, the nursing school, which we predict will have about 600 students. Right now it has about 105, so that would be an area of growth.
Q: 600 students?
That’s my ultimate goal.
Q: What interested you in the position at the medical school?
I really do think the opportunities here are tremendous. The medical school is new enough where it’s not constrained by any history or old baggage. They could take the medical school curriculum and start something that hasn’t been started before. I thought that was pretty exciting.
Not very often does that kind of opportunity come. especially in a city that’s as attractive to live in as El Paso.
Q: What is your advice for those considering the medical profession? There have been a lot of changes in health care with downward pressure on costs and consolidation.
The easiest thing is to follow your passion. That’s what sustains you, regardless of what happens with the economy or the federal government or insurance or paper work or new electronic systems. In essence, if you love what you’re doing, you’ll put up with the other stuff.
Q: Can you still recommend the profession?
Absolutely, I don’t think there’s a profession that’s more satisfying.
Q: Why did you want to become a doctor?
I really enjoyed helping people – the ability to take someone in their time of greatest need and help them through that. There’s a problem solving skill that’s required.
People are drawn to the profession who like to take a bunch of facts that may or may not seem relevant, or may not seem like they’re organized, and make a diagnosis and then give the patient proper treatment. All of that I love.
I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to take care of individuals, teach, write and be involved with research.
Q: What research?
I’ve been involved primarily with cardiovascular research. We were among the first to describe how cocaine affects the heart starting in the late 80’s and the early 90’s. We also looked at various kinds of heart disease.
Q: Why specialize in the heart? What interests you about it?
Being a cardiovascular doctor meant I could use the cerebral part of medicine, the thinking part, but also the procedural part.
There are a lot of exciting things going on cardiac-wise right now. A lot of things that were previously done by surgery are now done with catheterization or minimally invasive techniques. For example, we are doing heart valves now using a small incision and catheter so people go home in two or three days.
We have a device that can close holes in the heart. We have newer devices to help treat hardening of the arteries and some newer medications to lower cholesterol as well. There has never been a better time to prevent heart disease.
Q: Do you also plan on having a practice in El Paso?
I do plan to see patients and to teach as well.
Q: When do you hope to open your practice?
I plan to start the first of October.
Q: How much support does Texas Tech El Paso have from the university system in Lubbock?
It has a tremendous amount of support. Lubbock provides a lot of the support services right now for the school here, but a lot of those things will be transitioned to us as we become a separate health sciences center.
Q: Things like?
Human resources, information technology, legal work. Over the next two or three years we have to be accredited. So we won’t be completely separate from Lubbock until that accreditation takes place in 2017.
Q: Kent Hance, the former Texas Tech system chancellor, seemed to be a strong advocate for the El Paso campus. Do you have any feel for the new chancellor, Robert Duncan? Does he seem to have our interests in mind?
Yeah, he’s also a great proponent. He’s very familiar with this region. In fact, I just met with him two nights ago and his question was: “What can I do to help you guys in El Paso?” It was the right question to ask.
Q: For more than seven years, El Paso’s state lawmakers have tried to get funding for a third building for the medical school. Are things any more hopeful for the next legislative session?
What we are proposing is a 227,000-square-foot building we’re calling our Medical Science Building II here on campus. It received a very high priority at the last legislative meeting, but none of the requests were funded – not across the entire state.
There’s great enthusiasm that because of that, this year, these issues will rise to the top and will be addressed earlier in the legislative session instead of the tail end where they were dropped.
There’s clearly more revenue; it just depends how they slice the pie.
Q: When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing here in El Paso?
I haven’t figured out a time I haven’t been working yet in these first 90 days. My wife and I usually enjoy traveling locally, to see what is around and I’m also a bicyclist. Prior to moving here I did all street biking, but I bought a mountain bike upon coming here, so I plan to get into that.
Q: You look pretty excited about that.
I am. There aren’t a lot of mountains in San Antonio.
Q: I was told you have a weekly podcast called PodMed. It’s the most listened to medical podcast?
We’ve been doing it for nine years. It was the first medical podcast ever recorded in the United States. My partner is Elizabeth Tracey. She’s a medical journalist at Johns Hopkins.
It covers the four latest science articles in any field. It could be in pediatrics, or surgery, or psychiatry or anything else. In some countries, it’s used as part of the medical school curriculum.
Q: Now there are all these fitness trackers and websites for self-diagnosis and such. On Tuesday, Apple made a big slash by introducing a new smart watch. How is all this technology changing the medical profession?
When we did the first podcast we were discouraged from doing it because it was brand new and people said it would never go anywhere.
What this new technology does is it allows us to take control of our own health care. You can monitor how healthy you are or want to be – calories, steps, heart rate.
A lot more can be managed from home rather than patients having to go into the doctors’ office – things like diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s very empowering for the patients and a lot less expensive than having to go to the doctor.
Q: But are we all becoming hypochondriacs? You know, people go to websites and forums to diagnose themselves and come away thinking they might have some terminal illness or think they know better than their doctor about what’s wrong with them.
I totally relate. There was a time when all I had to do was keep up with Ladies’ Home Journal or Red Book or Time magazine, but now as physicians, you have to be exposed to what patients are reading everywhere and most of that now is on the Internet.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.