Q&A with Mark Schuster, Founding Dean of Kaiser Permanente Med School

March 5, 2018

Alum Mark Schuster (cohort '91) moved back to Southern California last summer to take on the role of founding dean of the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine. Schuster had previously served as the William Berenberg Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and chief of general pediatrics and vice chair for health policy in the Department of Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital since 2007. Before that, he was a professor of pediatrics and health services at UCLA's Schools of Medicine and Public Health and as director of health promotion and disease prevention at RAND.

Pardee RAND Development Director Chandra Luczak caught up with Mark to ask him how the transition has been and how his Pardee RAND experience has influenced his career.

What are you most excited about in your new role as Founding Dean of Kaiser Permanente's School of Medicine?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join others in building something special. It's not every day that you get to develop a medical school from the ground up. It's exciting to be involved in every aspect and detail of the school. We are not only creating a curriculum, but we are also focused on every part of the school from designing our admissions process to designing our new building. Our curriculum will focus on prevention, population and community health, data analytics, and underserved communities. We are trying to adapt many of the innovative ideas that are coming out of other medical schools and combine them with new perspectives in the context of a rich learning environment that has integrated healthcare as its core.

How will this new medical school be different from the traditional medical education?

When I went to medical school, we sat in class all day and there was one lecture after another. In this new school, we plan to use small-group, case-based learning, and flipped classrooms, where students watch a video, do some reading, and complete exercises prior to attending interactive small groups where they will discuss course material.

We'll also do spiral learning by introducing certain topics early and then returning to them in more depth later, so that students can consolidate their understanding and build on what has come before.

What are some of the policy issues you hope to impact in your new role?

We want to make sure students are prepared to take care of patients of all backgrounds and are prepared to be leaders who can advocate at the community level when there are larger issues affecting health that they can influence. As physicians, we should understand many of the social, cultural, and economic factors that influence a patient's health. When you're trying to help someone heal or maintain their health, you need to understand the environment in which they live.

Pardee RAND is innovating and reinventing public policy graduate education much like we are working towards making contributions to new strategies for medical education.

What parallels do you see between Pardee RAND and Kaiser Permanente's new medical school?

Medical schools are almost always attached to a university, which can of course work well, but because our school will be attached to a major health system instead, we will have unusual freedom to try new and different approaches. I know Pardee RAND also has that freedom, and I understand that the school is innovating and reinventing public policy graduate education much like we are working towards making contributions to new strategies for medical education.

Another parallel is our hands-on approach. Much like students at Pardee RAND, who start their on-the-job training [OJT] early at RAND, our students will be in clinical settings from the start, rather than delaying interactions with patients until a year or more later. We think it's important for students to be interacting with patients and their families so that they better understand the healthcare system from the patient's and family's perspectives. Therefore, students might be interviewing patients or serving as navigators for them.

What skills do you take with you from your time at Pardee RAND into your new role?

At Pardee RAND, I had phenomenal mentorship on my dissertation, so I take that with me into every job. It informs my efforts to mentor others, whether formally with students or less formally when supervising employees. It affects how I do my job as I think about serving our students as best we can. My remarkable dissertation mentors included David Kanouse, who was an extremely committed committee chair, and Sandy Berry, Bob Bell, Bob Brook, and Phyllis Ellickson. They were engaged, they were supportive, and they taught me one-on-one. Each is an exceptional talent in their field and they taught me how to think critically and find solutions to problems. I learned from them the kind of wisdom that you can't learn from a textbook.

What was unique to you about receiving a Pardee RAND degree?

Learning about all different types of policy — from education and health to housing and defense. I think it was valuable to understand policy broadly and to be able to go to school in a setting where I could work with researchers who were doing applied research. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different people on a breadth of topics. I have spent much of my career doing research, and learned how to do it at RAND.

Could you describe a time when you've felt you've really made an impact on the world or a particular problem?

RAND taught me how to do policy research, so I was able to work in areas where research could make a difference. I had the opportunity to do work on adolescent sexual health as well as on quality of care, that helped influence thinking on those topics. I worked on paid family leave when California became the first state to mandate it, and helped provide a window into the effects of that policy. I also worked on a study of 5,000 5th graders, out of which have come dozens of papers on social and community factors that influence their behavior.

How will data play a role in the school? Will students do any research?

Data will play a critical role at the School. Students will have the opportunity to learn from the robust data capabilities of Kaiser Permanente's comprehensive electronic health record. Our school will also draw upon the strength of Kaiser Permanente's vast research departments. There are hundreds of investigators and staff who are based around the country at eight regional research centers and one national center, and clinical researchers work at the medical centers in various regions. Our students will be able to do ongoing research projects as well as capstone projects with them. Perhaps most importantly, students will learn how to use data when providing care to patients. The rich Kaiser Permanente databases will enable students to see if particular therapies are more effective in certain situations, or whether particular problems affect particular communities.

What advice do you have for current Pardee RAND students or recent graduates?

I'm not sure I know how to give global advice to people studying such a wide array of topics. I think what was most important to me as a graduate student was working with exceptional researchers who were able to guide me not only in my research but also in my thinking about my career. I'd advise students to do their best to connect with mentors who are committed to them and with whom they feel comfortable. The apprenticeship-style learning approach at Pardee RAND, not only with the dissertation but also with OJT, can provide an invaluable opportunity to develop strong skills and experience that can facilitate getting future jobs. I'd also recommend working on topics that they love and are enthusiastic about. RAND afforded me the chance to study areas I cared about, which made the hard work and long hours stimulating and even fun.