How the Wisconsin Idea makes people healthier -- Dr. Robert N. Golden and Sen. Luther Olsen

May 7, 2018

We are close collaborators who became good friends while serving the Wisconsin Idea.

As dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health and as a state senator on the UW Health Authority Board, we recently created a truly integrated academic health system. UW Health is now a more seamless organization, caring for patients across the continuum from community-based primary care to state-of-the-art specialized services.

More than a decade ago, we pursued another innovation that is paying dividends for patients. To integrate the principles of public health, with its emphasis on disease prevention and health promotion, into the traditions of medicine, we transformed the state’s public medical school into the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Innovation for the public good is the essence of the Wisconsin Idea: taking the resources of this great university and extending them to serve the people. Our state’s investment in our universities makes this possible, and we both endorse that.

We arrived at our partnership from different paths. Dr. Golden pursued a career in academic medicine, eager to be part of a public organization that looked outward. Sen. Olsen and his brothers were the third generation of a farming family that ran an agriculture supply business and experienced firsthand the discoveries coming out of the university system, which helped farmers make their decisions.

The Wisconsin Idea is meaningful to each of us. When it comes to health, it means developing outreach programs and new discoveries that will affect all of our communities. If you’re living in rural Wisconsin or in the zip codes in Milwaukee that suffer from terrible health disparities, it’s very difficult to get access to medical care, let alone the healthy activities and environment that may decrease your need to see a doctor.

To address this challenge, we created the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM). The vast majority of our WARM graduates pursue careers in rural Wisconsin where more physicians are needed.

We also created Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) in partnership with Aurora Sinai, a component of Aurora Health that serves disadvantaged communities in Milwaukee. TRIUMPH students complete long-term community service learning projects, ranging from nutrition programs for preschoolers to interventions that allow geriatric patients to continue living at home.

TRIUMPH and WARM students, like all of our graduates, will be shaped by a deep understanding of the principles of public health, along with traditional medical approaches.

Research is one of our missions. We created the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR), a partnership that includes UW scientists from engineering, medicine and public health, nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine, as well as the Marshfield Clinic. Their goal is to move discoveries into the clinic and then the community as quickly as possible. At the same time, the needs of patients and caregivers are directed back to help shape the research agenda.

Take breast cancer. Engineering faculty develop nanotechnology approaches to deliver chemotherapy more precisely to cancer cells. Physician researchers explore specific dietary changes that might increase the effectiveness of medication while decreasing side effects. Translational researchers find the best ways to integrate these treatments into community clinics. Population health experts design the most cost-effective ways to make this available for everyone, regardless of where they live.

Our approach to discovery can be seen in our new research facilities. The Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR) advance “science without walls.” With no physical barriers, researchers can share ideas in a way that will accelerate discovery and create spinoffs.

The future lies in breaking down barriers. The people of Wisconsin expect us to make the best use of resources and create links among researchers, physicians and patients. We constantly ask ourselves: “How can we make people’s lives better?” That is the true challenge of the Wisconsin Idea. We fully embrace the challenge.