MUSC surgeon prepares for presidency

By Ashley Barker
Published May 5, 2014

The next president of the Medical University of South Carolina plans to alter how the institution provides health care and how it educates health care providers.

Dr. David Cole, current chairman of MUSC’s Department of Surgery, will initially focus on modifying the organization’s culture.

He wants to establish a more patient-centered, quality-based and measurable mission that hinges on discussions with insurance companies and local businesses.

Dr. David Cole
Dr. David Cole

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MUSC didn’t document presidential votes
“I honestly think we need to change the relationship with insurance providers to where it’s not a negotiated contract with someone who is your adversary,” Cole said. “The common ground is quality. Better quality, less cost, everybody wins — the patient, the health care provider and the institution.”

Building relationships with industry partners will be how MUSC becomes a nationally recognized leader, he said.

“At the state level — and I’m very biased at this — I feel like MUSC is a huge underappreciated resource in terms of the depth and quality we bring,” Cole said. “I would welcome local industry and local partners to figure out how to work together to get different entrepreneurial opportunities moving.”

An aerospace manufacturing company is already on Cole’s radar as a potential partner.

Boeing, I’m sure as a big corporation, is looking for cost-effective health care for their workers. We would love to have the opportunity to step up in that domain to partner with them and do those kinds of things,” Cole said. “Those are the kinds of conversations I look forward to having soon.”

Working with the College of Charleston on various programs also is something Cole plans to pursue once he becomes president in July.

He said the concept of a comprehensive research university, which was recently debated by state lawmakers, is wonderful because it would provide greater technical capabilities.

Cole said the right thing to do, though, is to determine what the business community needs from local higher education institutions and what would make sense long term.

“You need to have win-wins for both sides to embrace or see the benefit for a collaboration. The not-so-silent partner has got to be the local community and businesses,” Cole said. “Rome was not built in a day. Those kinds of programs will need a long-term vision and time with effective partnerships. But it starts with discussion.”

Becoming a medical university president
Cole’s nomination to be the next MUSC president was not the result of any personal quest. He was surprised when an Academic Search Inc. representative gave him a call in January to say that he had been anonymously nominated for the position.

From left, interim President Mark Sothmann, President-elect Dr. David Cole, and past presidents Dr. Ray Greenberg and Dr. Jim Edwards attend a luncheon. (Photo by Anne Thompson, MUSC Digital Imaging)
From left, interim President Mark Sothmann, President-elect Dr. David Cole, and past presidents Dr. Ray Greenberg and Dr. Jim Edwards attend a luncheon. (Photo by Anne Thompson, MUSC Digital Imaging)
“It became apparent that the nomination had a significant amount of support, and the message was ‘you need to seriously consider this.’ So at that point, I did a lot of soul searching,” Cole said.

Cole spoke to former MUSC presidents Dr. Raymond Greenberg and Dr. Jim Edwards about their experiences with the job.

“They said it was a wonderful opportunity, in the briefest terms, and that it’s a challenging job but an opportunity to make a difference. They told me things I already knew, like MUSC is a great institution, and they encouraged me to think about it hard,” Cole said. “I respect the former leadership and wanted to get their input.”

Cole weathered an offsite interview with the search committee and a two-day on-campus interview with the board of trustees and various MUSC faculty and staff members.

“From my perspective, it was far too long,” he said.

He was also questioned by members of the MUSC Faculty Senate, which is led by President Tom G. Smith.

“He’s a very highly regarded clinician and researcher, so I think faculty are pleased with that part of his record,” Smith said. Shortly after the presidential pick, Cole offered to attend the next MUSC Faculty Senate meeting in May.

“That’s a good sign of his openness to us. We would want to keep that dialogue going,” Smith said. “As a general rule, faculty at our institution — like many other state institutions — are concerned about levels of funding, particularly for research and education. Finding ways to get creative about where we can identify philanthropic resources or grants is a key priority.”

In the months ahead, Cole will focus on meeting with campus groups and finding someone to take the reins of the Department of Surgery as interim chair while a national search is conducted to find his permanent replacement.

He also must determine how much of his presence in the operating room will still be appropriate as president.

“There are several surgeons who are national leaders. In discussions with them, every one of them said there’s strength in having some level of clinical activity because it continues to give validity as a clinical leader both internally and externally,” Cole said. “I would clearly have to make sure there’s a balance, and it wouldn’t distract from fulfilling my primary role. But my goal is to maintain some minimal clinical presence.”

A 20-year MUSC veteran
Cole joined MUSC in 1994 as an assistant professor in the Division of General Surgery and became a tenured professor in 2001. He was named medical director of the MUSC Center for Cellular Therapy in 2006 and appointed chairman of the Department of Surgery in 2007. Last year, Cole became president of MUSC Physicians after serving as secretary from 2011 until 2013.

“Given my experience of 20 years at MUSC, I think I can reasonably say I have a valid understanding of health care,” Cole said.

He plans to use his experience as a way to influence state lawmakers.

“I know and have friendships with different lawmakers just because I’ve been here for 20 years,” he said. “I think I connect with people well. People understand that I’m a direct and sincere person. I’m a good listener, and as such, I think I can develop good relationships and be a good steward for the institution.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called Cole a splendid choice for the MUSC presidency, and said he looks forward to working with him more closely.

“He is greatly admired by his peers and co-workers at the medical university, as well as having established a national reputation for his great skills as a surgeon and his leadership in medical education,” Riley said. “He has excellent people skills, and understands the intricacies of the medical university as well as its potential to further increase quality and achievement.”

Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.

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