The Lebanese American University (LAU) has had considerable medical ambitions for some time. From acquiring the Rizk Hospital five years ago and transforming it into the University Medical Center — Rizk Hospital (UMC-RH), to setting up a state of the art medical school in Byblos, LAU is not resting on its laurels. It has big plans ahead. Executive sat with LAU’s president Joseph Jabbra to discuss the university’s accomplishments so far with regards to medicine and its strategy going forward.
Five years on from the acquisition of the Rizk Hospital, what are the LAU’s main accomplishments with regards to this purchase?
They are on two accounts. First, our graduates from the school of medicine now have a place to go to for their internships. Secondly, our mission is to serve society and we do that in a variety of ways: education and healthcare delivery. We have been renovating the hospital and expanding it.
In a 2012 interview with Executive, you revealed that LAU acquired the hospital for $47.5 million and was planning to put up another $47.5 million to meet expansion plans after it completes a restructuring of the facilities. Where do the restructuring plans stand now?
So far we have invested $43 million and we will still be pouring in more for renovation. We renovated the centers of endoscopy, radiology and dermatology, and added three floors for patient care. All patients are accommodated in new facilities. We have long term plans to add another building to the hospital and hired [architectural and engineering consulting company] Khatib & Alami to advise us on how to make sure the hospital responds to the needs of the community.
What main areas of the hospital will you be focusing on going forward?
There are four areas: expanding the operating theatres by updating and adding new ones. We are going to have between 10 and 11 in total [up from five today]. We need to renovate the intensive care and emergency rooms and we will add bed capacity. Our ultimate goal is to have between 200 and 250 beds up from about 100 today.
What budget is set for this expansion plan?
$40 million for the next three to four years.
The hospital serves as the primary teaching hospital for LAU’s schools of medicine, nursing and pharmacy. How many students are attending these schools?
We intend for the school to be small as we believe in quality. We started by taking 25 students with 23 graduating in July of last year, the inaugural class. In the past few years, we have been adding between 39 and 40 students. Ultimately, we would like to take in 50 to 60 students per year and have a total capacity of 300 to 350 students.
What percentage of the students comes from Lebanon? And do you aim to attract students from the region?
The overwhelming majority of the students are from Lebanon. We always look at the region but our primary responsibility is to Lebanese students. When we satisfy that quota, we move on, but any student anywhere in the world can apply for a place at the School of Medicine.
The 12,500 square meter medical school was projected to cost $18 million and be the most advanced technologically in the country. What was the final cost?
Around $40 million. It is one of the best-equipped schools of medicine in the region. The labs and equipment are second to none.
In 2007, Partners Harvard Medical International (PHMI) began a 10‑year collaboration with LAU and assisted in the opening of the new medical school in October 2009. Tell us about this collaboration.
Our faculty is trained at Harvard Medical School. The interim dean at our medical school for two years, Dr. N. Lynn Eckhert, was one of the most influential members of Partners at Harvard. [She is PHMI’s Director of Academic Programs]. PHMI also gives us advice on the curriculum, with the hospital [UMC-RH] and helps us with the placing of students [at hospitals in the US]. One of our students is currently undertaking his specialization at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Are you able to successfully place students in US hospitals?
In the US, there is more and more resistance to admitting international students in terms of internships and what have you, but we have enough support. The Lebanese doctors based in the US help us place students and help with conferences [in Lebanon] that are of tremendous value to our students. We are connected not only with Harvard [Medical School] but with the medical school at the University of Illinois in Chicago and we are in the process of establishing linkages with Iowa for the exchange of students, faculty and expertise. We [also] established a relationship with Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.
Have you had any visiting professors?
We are looking for that. We have not had any faculty member who came here to spend a year or so; they come to give a lecture or advise. We are now recruiting a psychiatrist, Dr. Elias Abou Jaoude from Stanford University, to join us as a faculty member. We are trying to recruit Dr. Ramzi Younis, chief of pediatric otolaryngology [conditions involving the ear, nose, and throat for children] from the University of Miami.
LAU offers the only Doctor of Pharmacy program outside the United States to be accredited by the Accreditation Council of Pharmacy Education. With AUB not providing this program, what is the demand like for this degree?
It is a cut-throat competition in terms of getting in. At the undergraduate level, there are about 400 to 500 students. For the doctor of pharmacy, last year we took 30 students — up from 25 the prior year. To complete their degrees, students have to go to the US in order to do a clinical rotation. We have agreements with US institutes such as the Methodist hospital to complete these rotations.
At the opening ceremony of the medical school a few years ago, you stated that the school was also established to fill the void created by not having proper indigenous disease research in the region. What advancement in terms of research has the school accomplished so far?
One of most important things we have achieved regards genetics. Professor Pierre Zalloua who was appointed dean of graduate studies and research [in October of last year] has been conducting the research in this area. His work was very well publicized throughout the world. We are also conducting research on obesity and a variety of other topics. In our region, research in medicine is not as prominent as in the US. Some people say its due to lack of funding, others say research is not something that doctors would do readily as they are focused on their specialization and helping patients.
What, in your opinion, is behind the lack of research in the region?
Funding is one reason. It is not easy to get funding for research especially in Lebanon. Secondly, to have research you need to have the right culture for it. People must consider research as one of their top priorities. Many doctors are focusing on research now and if you compare Lebanese doctors in Lebanon to the ones in the US and Canada, they are doing a lot more because of the cultural environment. We are trying to strengthen that environment.
As president of LAU, what is your ultimate goal with regards to the School of Medicine?
My goal is to make sure we graduate a new breed of doctors focused on patients and relatives and to deliver excellence in terms of healthcare. There is nothing wrong with people making money, but in this profession, like in several other professions, to focus entirely on money is not right. Doctors should have an opportunity to make a good living, but I am against having money as the main focus.