As he stood before scores of new doctors Thursday, Dr. Gary Gottlieb waxed nostalgic about how far the health care system has come since he stood in the graduates’ shoes 33 years ago and spoke urgently about how far it still has to go.
It was fitting, for after all, the Albany Medical College Class of 2012 itself had come far, including more than 20 years of schooling and several other commencement ceremonies. As class President Arati Patil reminded her fellow students, they had sat through elementary-school graduations, middle-school graduations, high-school graduations, and, of course, undergraduate college graduations.
But all of the 220 graduates who earned degrees Thursday still had a long ways to go.
“As we transition to your leadership in our field, I beg of you to hold us accountable to pave the way for you to sustain real improvements in disparities of health and outcome and delivery that we must address this very minute,” said Gottlieb, president and CEO of Partners HealthCare and keynote speaker at the college’s 174th commencement.
As a 1979 graduate of Albany Medical College, Gottlieb’s speech rang nostalgic at times. He looked back at his own graduation, when Jimmy Carter was president and world news was dominated by increasing tensions with Iran. Oil prices were on the rise, the economy was sputtering and health care costs were dragging the nation down.
And “remarkably,” he noted with lighthearted sarcasm, Congress had just rejected Carter’s proposal for national health insurance.
“Hmm,” said Gottlieb from the stage of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, “with only a few tweaks I could have stood right here for more than a generation and a half and it seems that my hair color and global temperatures would have been the only things that changed.”
Certainly, medicine and health care have come a long way. Life expectancy has increased by more than four years since he graduated. AIDS was discovered, spread, politicized and eventually managed, contained and treated. Life expectancy for cancer patients has increased by a staggering number of years. The human genome has been mapped.
The clinicians and scientists who graduated Thursday are about to enter an exciting time in the field, said Gottlieb.
“However, there’s a piece of the foundation that we’ve left for you that’s crumbling,” he said. “So much of what has improved and so much of the real hope that we have created is missing for so many.”
Gottlieb, who co-chairs the Boston Mayor’s Task Force to Eliminate Health Disparities, urged the Class of 2012 to help close the gap in health and health care for minorities.
“It seems that for every area that we improve, it improves just a little bit less for an underrepresented minority,” he said. “And some of our greatest achievements bypass some of those who need them the most.”
Gottlieb was awarded an honorary degree Thursday, along with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson, whom Time magazine has called the “ultimate role model for women in science.”
Albany Medical College Dean Vincent Verdile also touched on a bit of the politics the fresh graduates would encounter in their medical careers. Since modern health care is a complicated and complex business, he warned, there was nothing he could guarantee on their graduation day but a lifetime of pressures.
“You will feel pressure from patients, from colleagues, granting agencies, insurance companies, regulators and many other sources,” said Verdile. “The expectations for you to control the cost of health care, to flawlessly capture data and measure results and to find new solutions to long-standing problems will be even greater.”
But Patil said the most exciting part of the profession she chose was that she would always be learning. She and her fellow graduates would now have the hard-earned title of doctor before their names, but they would always be students, she said.
“We’ll still learn from our colleagues, our patients, family, friends and even our own students in the future. We have chosen a profession that stresses the importance of continuing education. And luckily for us, every day will be a learning opportunity.”
The following degrees were conferred at Thursday’s commencement ceremonies: 142 medical degrees, 21 master of science degrees in nurse anesthesiology, 30 master of science degrees in physician assistant studies, 15 master of science or doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences, and 12 master’s degrees from the Alden March Bioethics Institute.
Eighteen of the graduates will return to the Capital Region in July to begin residency training at Albany Medical Center.