The physician and infectious disease expert talks about the momentum she’s built after a year as dean ad interim, the future of medical education, and the school’s integration with Tufts Medicine
Physician Helen Boucher, an expert in infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance, has been named the new dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. The first woman to lead the School of Medicine in its 129-year history, with this appointment Boucher builds on a 20-year career at Tufts as a clinician, professor, administrator, and researcher. She had served as the school’s dean ad interim since last summer, when she was also named chief academic officer for Tufts Medicine, which is the parent health system of Tufts Medical Center, the School of Medicine’s principal teaching-hospital affiliate. In her dual role as dean and chief academic officer, Boucher will continue to report to both Tufts President Anthony Monaco, and the president and CEO of Tufts Medicine, Michael Dandorph.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Tufts Now, Boucher discussed the momentum she built as dean, how medical education will change in the future, the school’s integration with Tufts Medicine, and how she plans to deepen her engagement with medical students and alumni.
Tufts Now: What lessons will you take from your year as interim dean at the School of Medicine? What opportunities are you most excited about?
Helen Boucher: As I reflect on my year as interim dean, I think back to the beginning and how I spent the first 100 days listening. I'm still listening and learning every day about our community—our students, faculty and staff, alumni, partners—what they need, what they contribute, what they worry about, and what they’re proud of.
We have clinical partners throughout Massachusetts and Maine, and we recently started the first Tufts School of Medicine program outside of New England with our Doctor of Physical Therapy program in Phoenix, Arizona. We have a growing portfolio of programs in a really complex ecosystem. Engaging with our community members across this ecosystem has been and will continue to be a significant and important focus for me.
With respect to our strategic plan, the area of focus I'm most passionate about is health justice—addressing health care inequities and helping the School of Medicine become an anti-racist organization. That work is evident throughout the school, in our curriculum, experiential learning, and Tufts Medicine, as well. And I’ll talk more about that in moment.
We have world-class experts in research, clinical care and education focused on health care disparities and we have increasing numbers of places where those worlds are intersecting. For instance, the Tufts Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice is a national leader in this space, and Tufts Medicine has the only Mother Infant Research Institute in the country. This gives us a tremendous opportunity to have a lasting impact on both and individual and systemic level. And this is very much in keep with our mission focus—our job is to create the health care leaders of tomorrow and to effect change, especially through health justice.
I'm thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to continue to grow and evolve the school's culture of excellence, and to ensure that we're developing the health care workforce that our world needs now and in the future. We face a growing national physician shortage, and Tufts has a huge role in educating the doctors of the future to meet the demand for more physicians in our country, as well as other health care professionals through our physician assistant, physical therapy, and public health programs.
We have world-class academics and exceptional clinical care experiences. The school’s excellence shows whether you look at our applicants, our students, their residency matches, alumni engagement, the performance and satisfaction of the health care professionals we train. So many measures tell us how valuable the Tufts School of Medicine education is for our students and the communities in which they practice.
"With respect to the School of Medicine's strategic plan, the area of focus I'm most passionate about is health justice—addressing health care inequities and helping the School of Medicine become an anti-racist organization."
What is your vision for changes to medical education and training for TUSM students?
The landscape of medical education in our country has changed dramatically. Our curriculum is very different now. As I noted earlier, we are committed to becoming an anti-racist medical school and we’re focused on health justice. In fact, we’re in our second year of a brand-new curriculum, which has been reviewed and developed through an anti-racist lens.
We're actively engaged in anti-racism and health justice work outside of the curriculum, too. Last year, we launched the university’s first anti-racism committee focused on change and accountability. We’re adding experiential learning in health justice. And we have the highly successful Ho Health Justice Scholars program, to which students can apply if they’re interested in careers in health justice. This is something I look forward to expanding.
Part of my goal in the integration with Tufts Medicine is to bring our students closer to the patients they serve. One of the things we know is that patients would rather get care at home from people who look like them. That's why we need a diverse health care workforce, and we need to be able to deliver health care to patients where they are. This integration with Tufts Medicine is going to bring us into communities such as Lowell, where we have a partnership with a federally funded health clinic and a large number of practicing community physicians. Students will be able to engage with people in their communities and with other health care professionals and address bigger problems like food insecurity and housing insecurity, which we know are related to health.
We have additional areas of focus as well. We're hoping to develop more programs in interprofessional education, which means doctors working with nurses and physical therapists and social workers on the front lines of patient care. Finally, student wellness is really important, as is the wellness of all of our community members. We have many great resources in place already. But as a leader in the school, I’m always thinking about humanizing the school and making it a place where people want to learn, work, and stay.
What are your strategies for connecting with TUSM students?
My team and I are very intentional about creating a variety of ways for me to interact and engage with students. We know students are really busy, so I'm trying to meet them where they are. For example, on Wednesdays around noon, the first-year students tend to congregate outside the building before they go to their clinical experiences. So, I go out in front of the school and talk to all the first-year students and hear about their experiences during these early days of their medical career. It's great to have informal conversations with students when they're in between classes or getting a bite to eat. I also sit down with students formally, like when I meet with student government leaders. And it’s important for me to connect with all of our students so I go to Maine to meet with our students on the Maine Track. And of course, it’s not just me; many of my team members are deeply connected with our students, especially though the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Educational Affairs.
What does it mean to be Tufts Medicine’s chief academic officer?
The role was designed to stimulate and accelerate bringing these two entities together for the betterment of the school and the academic health system, and ultimately, our patients, students, and faculty. My job is to ensure that education and research across our health system is exceptional. My team is responsible for educating medical students, residents, fellows, and faculty across the health system, so we're standing up medical education across Tufts Medicine, which means we're going to have more Tufts medical students in Lowell and Melrose, and at our home care and hospice agency. There are great opportunities to expand both the education and research environment across our system.
What does it mean to be a female leader in health care at this moment?
It's a huge privilege, a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously. I am still one of few women—and sometimes the only woman—at the table. As you move up, there are fewer women in leadership positions. I feel an obligation to set a good example of the excellent work that women do in this space, and I mentor young women who are interested in careers in science and medicine.
It's very important to advocate for equitable access to health care for all people, especially for women and children. I’m a practicing Catholic. I'm the chair of the board of the College of the Holy Cross. But in all things, especially the aftermath of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is imperative that we focus on the importance of health care being available for every person and medical decisions being doctor-patient decisions.
Tell us about an accomplishment of yours that makes you feel very proud.
The most important accomplishment is my family. I have a wonderful husband and two daughters. I'm very blessed.
I’m very proud of my work, over the past year, with leaders at the School of Medicine and Tufts Medicine on the research integration and getting the leaders engaged and committed to agreeing on a vision for research in the future. I think our efforts speak volumes about the future of what we can do, together.
When did you know you wanted to pursue medicine?
There were no doctors in my family, but I became interested in medicine as a young girl because of my pediatrician. I loved what he did. When I was in fifth grade, I told my mom I was going to be a doctor and I never looked back.
What are two things people might not know about you?
I picked up a golf club this summer for the first time in 30 years. And I was a middle-school science teacher for two years before I went to medical school. So education is in my blood.