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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The importance of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to Springfield's medical community is obvious when the school's dean says more than 90 percent of local doctors in many specialties either trained or worked there.
As the medical school's leader for the past 14 years, Dr. J. Kevin Dorsey said he worked hard to solidify and broaden SIU's impact in central and southern Illinois. He said the school, with campuses in Springfield and Carbondale, has produced high-quality doctors and provided primary and specialty care to patients despite a state budget impasse that threatens the health of some programs.
Dorsey, 72, who has decided to step down as dean and provost at the end of the year but remain on the full-time teaching faculty, said he hopes he is remembered for trying to fulfill the mission of the school.
"That would be plenty good enough for me," he said.
Former and current students, as well as other leaders in the SIU system and in Springfield's medical community, said Dorsey's calm approach, emphasis on compassion in medicine, and interest in expanding SIU's influence on Sangamon County's quality of life will benefit the institution and local residents for years to come.
SIU's expanded efforts to reduce poverty and tear down barriers to health care — through a three-year, $500,000 pilot project that began last month in the Enos Park neighborhood — is a direct result of Dorsey's leadership.
"I truly think that's his legacy," said Edgar Curtis, president and CEO of Memorial Health System, the not-for-profit entity that operates Memorial Medical Center.
Proud of 'my baby'
Dorsey, a Springfield resident who is paid $404,000 per year, said he has accomplished his major goals and doesn't hide his satisfaction with the progress of the school's community outreach.
"If there's one thing I can point to, this was sort of my baby in a way," he said. "Other people did the heavy lifting, but it was something that I really wanted to see, and it's gotten done."
Dorsey said he is confident that SIU's outreach, coordinated by an associate dean of community health and service, will continue after longtime faculty member Dr. Jerry Kruse, CEO of SIU HealthCare, becomes the new dean and provost Jan. 1.
"I think doctors have realized that there's more to health than the pills I prescribe or the operation that I do," Dorsey said. "It's having a job, having an education, not living in poverty."
Dorsey, a rheumatologist, is only the third dean in the history of the medical school, which was founded in 1970 and previously led by Drs. Richard Moy and Carl Getto.
The public medical school, where first-year students attend the Carbondale campus and complete the next three years in Springfield, operates with a $180 million annual budget. About $38 million of the total comes from state tax dollars.
At any one time, SIU is educating about 290 medical students. There are 380 full- and part-time faculty members and 1,300 staff members, including more than 1,000 civil service employees in Springfield, Carbondale and satellite locations.
Dorsey was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. He began working at SIU's Carbondale campus in 1973 as a biochemist and graduated from the medical school in 1978. He rejoined the faculty in 1983 after completing a rheumatology fellowship at the University of Iowa.
Dorsey remarried after his first wife, Diane, died in 1999 from a rare blood disease. He and his current wife, Linda, an SIU computer programmer, have four grown children between them.
Dorsey said he, like many leaders of medical schools, never planned to go into academic administration when he became a doctor. What he wanted to do was take care of patients.
"That's what we all do, and for whatever reason, we get asked to serve," he said.
A big part of his job, he said, was to increase the size of the faculty to build in redundancies so that care wouldn't be jeopardized if a certain specialist got sick or left the community.
When Dorsey began as dean in 2001, the school had 140 clinical faculty treating patients. That total now stands at about 280.
The school has helped attract doctors to the community who don't work for SIU, Dorsey added, noting that there were about 225 doctors practicing in Sangamon County in the early 1970s, compared with 1,000 today.
SIU established the Simmons Cancer Institute during Dorsey's tenure, though annual state funding for its ongoing costs hasn't increased beyond $2.5 million. Plans originally called for funding to double to $5 million and then reach $10 million.
Regardless, Dorsey said the cancer institute has been a great success for patients. "It helped us attract really high-quality cancer docs to the community," he said.
Shortages in state funding have hampered several projects at the medical school the past 14 years, he said.
"The money situation can be challenging," Dorsey said, "because it's sort of in fits and starts."
Because the SIU system, like other institutions of higher education, isn't receiving state funds during the budget impasse, officials have begun making $13.5 million in cuts at the university's Carbondale campus.
Separate from those cuts, the medical school has adopted $5 million in spending reductions, most of which deal with personnel services. The school hasn't had to lay off any employees but has delayed replacing employees who've left, Dorsey said.
He worries that the budget impasse, even when resolved, could severely reduce community-based services for patients with Alzheimer's disease throughout downstate Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed eliminating the $1.5 million grant for SIU's Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders.
For now, the center continues to operate, and like the university as a whole, the medical school is dealing with the impasse by transferring money from other funding sources.
State funding for the school has remained basically flat or declined slightly since Dorsey became dean, while operational costs have increased. Hospitals in the region have helped the school deal with that dilemma, he said.
For example, in 2001, the school received a total of $4 million annually in "academic support" from HSHS St. John's Hospital and Memorial Medical Center to support salaries of SIU faculty members and administrative expenses, Dorsey said.
That support from the two hospitals now totals more than $40 million per year, he said.
Hospitals benefit from the surgeons and other specialists SIU hires because they help make Springfield a downstate hub for medical care, Dorsey said.
'He's very human'
St. John's CEO Dr. Charles Lucore said he appreciated Dorsey's leadership in helping St. John's set up a children's hospital staffed mostly with SIU doctors.
"As a physician, I've seen firsthand how Dr. Dorsey's commitment to the education of medical students has improved the delivery of health care across downstate Illinois," Lucore said.
SIU President Randy Dunn cited Dorsey's "reasoned, thoughtful approach to leadership."
"Kevin has the ability to look at the things in front of him and make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions," Dunn said.
Dorsey said his relationship with unions and unionized employees at the school is "fine" even though one union, a local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was able to turn back the school's attempt last year to remove union protection from 240 of the 650 employees represented by AFSCME.
AFSCME members "respect the work" Dorsey has done, AFSCME Local 370 vice president Lisa Hensley said, though she added, "I don't think they feel any connection to the dean."
People who have gotten to know Dorsey as medical students and colleagues said they appreciated his down-to-earth personality in a field where professional egos can be overwhelming.
"For me, that was very refreshing and comforting," said Isaac Tan, 28, a fourth-year SIU medical student from Urbana. "He's such a man of prominence and importance, but he's very human."
Tan and former students said they also benefited from Dorsey's dedication to doctors developing good bedside manners.
While the dean, Dorsey has participated with the rest of the faculty in leading tutor groups in which a handful of medical students meet twice a week to discuss various aspects of patient care. Tan was a member of one of Dorsey's groups.
He recalled Dorsey getting students to talk about how they would deliver bad news to a patient if the patient had been diagnosed with a rapidly progressing brain tumor.
"He's very much focused on the patient-physician interaction versus the basic science of the situation," Tan said. "He will bring you out of your everyday, ask you challenging questions and stretch your comfort zone."
Tan also enjoyed Dorsey inviting the tutor group to his home, where his wife cooked a meal for everyone. Not all faculty members do that, he said.
"The ones who do give you the sense that they really care about you," Tan said. "They're not just doing a job."
Dr. Amanda Velazquez, 28, who is completing a residency program in internal medicine at Indiana University, said Dorsey encouraged her interest in obesity and nutrition when she was an SIU medical student.
"He was so warm and welcoming," she said. "I felt as if we were equals."
Dr. Sharon Hull, 53, a 1987 graduate of the medical school who briefly headed SIU's medical humanities department, said Dorsey has been a mentor her entire career.
Unlike some in academia "who strive to accumulate power and wield it," Dorsey "leads with compassion," said Hull, who now is chief of community and family medicine at Duke University.
Dorsey said he is proud of the school's recent full accreditation for another eight years from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education — SIU's second consecutive full accreditation with no citations.
The achievement indicates that the school is focused and diligent, he said. Those are qualities Dorsey has tried to model in his own career.
"We're going to be innovative," he said. "We're going to create a terrific physician product, and we have."
Source: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, http://bit.ly/1NdJzd3
Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Springfield) State Journal-Register.
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