After 27 years on faculty at Mayo Clinic, Claudia F. Lucchinetti, M.D., is headed to The University of Texas at Austin. Beginning in December, she will lead not only Dell Med as its dean, but UT’s comprehensive health care strategy in her role as senior vice president for medical affairs.
A world-renowned researcher, Lucchinetti has been Mayo Clinic’s dean of clinical and translational science since 2020. She also serves as neurology department chair in the Midwest and enterprise neurology subspecialty council chair, overseeing strategy across Mayo Clinic sites nationwide. She practices as a clinical neurologist and is an active researcher and medical educator.
Lucchinetti shared her thoughts on this opportunity in Austin, the imperative of equity, leadership and what’s next.
The Austin Opportunity
As you know, when Dell Med launched in 2014, it was the first medical school in nearly 50 years to be built from the ground up at a top-tier research university. Outside looking in, what stands out to you about Dell Med, and what opportunities do you think lie ahead?
From its start, Dell Medical School recognized the importance of team-based learning, patient-centric and value-based care, and community partnerships, and in a very short time established a unifying identity and mission grounded in these core priorities. I’m honored to be joining the team and building upon the great work and success of so many to get Dell Med to this point in its development.
I’m also inspired by the courage to challenge the status quo in health and health care evident in Dell Med’s early and bold charge to “rethink everything.” This mindset is critical if we’re to respond as health care becomes less affordable, more fragmented and less equitable, all amid a rapid acceleration of digital capabilities and new technologies.
Dell Med is in a unique position to respond nimbly to these changes and challenges, and to play a leading role in driving health care transformation. Broadly, this focus on transformation complements UT Austin’s goal of becoming the world’s highest-impact public research university. And as part of UT, where innovation and collaboration thrive, there is tremendous potential for Dell Med to become a nationally recognized leader in academic medicine. We’ll also anchor a truly integrated academic health system in Austin, which is emerging as one of the top life sciences centers in the country.
Travis County taxpayers invest in Dell Med in a unique way, which has played a part in shaping Dell Med’s mission and vision. How is this community investment driving how you think about improving health and health care in our community, particularly for those most in need?
The relationship that Dell Med has with the Travis County community is certainly unique. It’s also one of the school’s strengths, reinforcing a commitment to working together with community and clinical partners to build new models that promote health, particularly for those from historically underserved communities. That work includes addressing challenges in health care access and delivery, improving health outcomes, expanding educational training with a focus on the health of the communities we serve, and investing in the research process, among other things. In terms of research, we know that integrating community knowledge and values is essential to accelerating discoveries that truly improve health.
Practicing What We Teach
You’re planning to continue to practice as a neurologist and to conduct research in Austin. That’s not necessarily something that everyone coming into a role like this would choose to do. Can you share a little bit about why practicing as a physician and researcher is important to you?
William Osler, an influential physician from the 1800s, once said that medical knowledge and education begins with the patient, continues with the patient and ends with the patient.
It’s so important to establish true connections and consider the whole person, not just their presenting problem.
My patients have always been my inspiration. From the young mother suffering from an aggressive and fatal form of multiple sclerosis who inspired my entire research career to spending time reassuring a patient and helping them understand a mysterious disease — humbled by their courage and honored to be walking alongside them on their journey — I have always emphasized never losing sight of the person who is your patient. It’s so important to establish true connections and consider the whole person, not just their presenting problem.
In the lab and through my research, I am driven to better understand patients’ unmet needs, exploring underlying disease mechanisms in hopes of developing improved biomarkers or identifying new and more effective treatments.
The insights I have gained in practice and research have been critical to my effectiveness as a physician leader, and that will continue to be the case at Dell Med and UT.
Dell Med’s commitment to health equity, diversity and inclusion is foundational to our visionintentionally woven into our school’s culture and work. How do you think about those aims in the context of health and care?
Addressing disparities is important both from a social justice and equity standpoint, and also for improving the nation’s overall health and prosperity. The pandemic put a spotlight on long-standing health disparities and amplified issues such as the importance of clinical trial diversity. The lack of diverse representation in clinical research and trials plays a key role in perpetuating health inequities. But, importantly, efforts to increase diversity in clinical research and address barriers to participation must begin long before a study gets underway.
Health equity, diversity and inclusion start with leadership and a commitment to create and support a culture in which people feel safe, heard and respected.
Health equity, diversity and inclusion start with leadership and a commitment to create and support a culture in which people feel safe, heard and respected — all prerequisites if we want people to be able to bring their authentic selves to work. We have to engage diverse perspectives, and respect and value those perspectives, to get a realistic picture of the world and people we serve. Ultimately, we need to move beyond buzzwords and embrace a spirit of inclusion in all that we do.
As incoming dean, I am dedicated to intentionally promoting equity, diversity and inclusion across Dell Med’s work, and to bringing science to bear on the challenges of eliminating health disparities, including in access to care and health outcomes.
On Health Leadership
As someone with a long and illustrious career in medicine, what advice do you have for the next generation of physician leaders?
To address the challenges of health care — and to excel and grow as physician leaders — we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone and challenge the status quo. It’s good to see that the Dell Med team already understands this. As leaders, we also need to remove ourselves from the center of the leadership equation and focus on interdependence, allowing us to lean on each other and others to lean on us.
My brother Marco, whom I lost several years ago, often reminded me that I didn’t always have to have the answer or the last word. That is an important lesson. No matter where we are in our careers or in our personal lives, we are faced with situations when it’s best to create space for other ideas and perspectives — to engage in dialogue, not just debate. For me, it’s about treating others with respect, holding myself accountable, following through on commitments and giving credit where credit is due. Building a reputation grounded in integrity takes years, but it takes only a second to lose. Never compromise your integrity.
What do you want the Dell Med team — nearly 2,500 faculty, staff, residents, fellows and students — to know about you as a leader?
I lead with enthusiasm and thrive in ambiguity, and meaningful impact is my North Star. My innate curiosity pushes me to understand things at a deeper level, and this also extends to people. I am passionate about developing talent and investing in a dynamic culture of career development and mentorship, and I value contributions that cut across practice, research and education.
As dean, I will work with you to co-create a compelling vision and will empower you by supporting an environment that fosters collaboration and innovation. As part of that, I am excited about raising the visibility of collaborative successes among our teams at Dell Med and UT Austin.
As you can probably tell, I value a team-based approach and look forward to making change together. We will have the confidence to move forward, but also the humility to recalibrate when needed.