The Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute is one of the hotbeds of USC medical research.
The Best Medicine
From superstar scientists to top doctors,
USC is going all-in on academic
medicine in the nation’s second-largest city.
By Alicia Di Rado
Dodger Stadium’s lights peek over the hills of Elysian Park as the land tumbles westward into Silver Lake and Hollywood. The Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains rise in the distance. Los Angeles shines before us.
Urologic surgeon Inderbir Gill, his arms crossed over slate blue surgical scrubs, scans the horizon from his seventh-floor office at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at Keck Medicine of USC and smiles. This vibrant city is USC’s hometown.
Gill has reason to feel a special connection to it: He and his fellow Keck Medicine of USC physicians are caring for growing numbers of its residents.
In the past four years, as the number of inpatients discharged from hospitals across California dropped, discharges at Keck Medical Center of USC climbed by 31 percent. At the same time, Keck Medicine’s revenues more than doubled, making it a $1.2 billion operation. USC’s medical enterprise is expanding faster than anyone could have imagined—and increasing in reputation at the same time.
“We have the skill, the talent for patients seeking health care not just from across the city, but from across the country and across the globe,” says Gill, chairman of the Catherine and Joseph Aresty Department of Urology and executive director of the USC Institute of Urology. As if to prove his point, the day after we spoke, Gill flew to India to participate in the inauguration ceremonies of that country’s newest flagship multispecialty hospital in Mumbai—one created in consultation with Keck Medicine and two other top American medical institutions.
Mounting numbers of satisfied patients. Swelling ranks of top physicians. New satellite medical offices and partnerships with local hospitals. Highly recruited scientists joining the faculty. Buildings rising on the Health Sciences Campus. They’re the drumbeat for a movement: USC is going all-in on academic medicine.
“USC stands at the center of where the action is: at the nexus of a new century of the Pacific, in a place that is the greatest living laboratory for the health challenges of the 21st century,” says USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “We want to be one of the most influential academic medical centers of the Pacific Rim.”
With dramatic changes in the health care landscape underway, the nation’s academic medical centers are seeing their profit margins perilously whittled down. At the same time, bioscientists are scrambling to win endangered federal research dollars. So why would USC embrace financial risk by growing its medical enterprise?
“This brings bigger liability, and much bigger uncertainty. But it comes with the territory,” Nikias says. “If you still want to be one of the top research universities, you have no choice but to make serious investments in the medical and biological sciences and biotech.
“Middle ground is failure, guaranteed. There is no middle ground.”
Nikias sees medicine as the next step in USC’s evolution.
In the last 50 years, a revolution in physics and electronics drove global innovation. Scientists and engineers pushed advances in industry and aerospace. Next came personal computing and the Internet. Now the great age of medicine and bioscience is dawning, Nikias says. That means big changes for USC, from patient care to biomedical research.
Within the past few years, USC took ownership of its flagship private hospitals—the 401-bed Keck Hospital of USC and the 60-bed USC Norris Cancer Hospital—for $280 million from Tenet Healthcare. “USC understood that to become one of the top universities in the country, it needed a very good medical school and medical center, and we weren’t going to get there unless we owned the hospitals,” says renowned cardiothoracic surgeon Vaughn Starnes, chair of the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery and director of the USC CardioVascular Thoracic Institute.