Emory Report

October 5, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 7

Brown navigating positions with Senate, VA Hospital

Virgil Brown started out captaining small ships. Back when he was a medical student at Yale in the early '60s, he bought a kit for a sailboat and convinced his young wife Alice that they should sleep on the sofa bed in the living room while he built the boat in the bedroom.

"We sailed it first in New Haven (Conn.) harbor, even though there were small craft warnings out that day, and we swamped it. I still remember," Brown recalled with a laugh, "the policeman along the edge of the harbor, watching us. We paddled the boat in and put it back on the car, but I was so excited about having finished it."

Nowadays Brown has moved on to bigger ships, like his new position as chief of medicine and primary care at the VA Hospital close to campus. Or his current, yearlong tenure as president of the University Senate. And Brown hopes to guide both of these institutions to fairer seas while at their helms.

A renowned medical researcher for his work in lipid metabolism, Brown was born and raised in Royston, Ga., and is an alumnus of both Oxford ('58) and Emory ('60), and his ties to home and family--as well as current events--helped him pick a theme for his year at the head of the Senate: "Returning to Our Founding Values."

"This school was founded in a very difficult time for America, a time of tremendous change," Brown said. "But what is clear is that the people who founded it felt very strongly about moral and ethical values, and the foundation of the school was built on those very strong feelings. And I think it behooves us to make certain that, as we go forward, we reexamine those values and make sure that we continue the bedrock principles that should be true for all times.

"Is a superb economy an adequate excuse for compromising moral and ethical values? I don't like what I'm hearing in polls right now about this whole business our president's gotten himself into. What do we want to tell our grandchildren about what we did about this? Where is the drift going to take us with the next president?"

One way to go about returning to core values is by taking care of one's family, and Brown hopes the Senate (and the Faculty Council, of which he is automatically chair) takes action to address the needs of one portion of the Emory family: disabled students. And he's not talking about accessibility, though complying with federal mandates regarding accessibility is certainly something the University should and must do; the issue is that of learning disabilities.

"What we're talking about here is something that's not defined in law," Brown said. "It's defined really in our willingness to be a leader in addressing our students' needs. We should be a university that allows very potent talents to be developed despite other problems that might hold students back."

Another issue he hopes to tackle is intellectual property management. Dennis Liotta, vice president for research, is developing a draft document addressing this issue and is distributing the document to faculty and the administration for comment. It is something that Brown would like to see the council carefully consider this year.

"We want to encourage our faculty to be innovative, yet when they're using University time, they're using resources of the University, and if they come up with products that are very remunerative, there ought to be some sharing. On the other hand, faculty who earn moderate sums on their creations, such as textbooks, may deserve the full compensation--the University gains from this type of contribution in many other ways," Brown said.

Brown has done his share of groundbreaking research, and it is for that and also for his teaching and clinical abilities that he was asked to take his position at the VA Hospital. One very attractive fact about the job was that, unlike many health care organizations these days, the VA is assured a certain level of funding by the government. This allows Brown to distribute the funds more deservedly among practitioners and to provide resources for additional health care professionals, such as nurse educators, nutritionists and others, that are difficult to provide in the private practice arena.

But Brown's plans for improved patient care go beyond that; he feels physicians are sometimes bogged down too much in record-keeping and computerized tasks that take away from time otherwise spent with patients. To solve this, he is creating medical care teams with individuals specially trained to handle specific tasks.

"Right now at the VA, a physician sees a patient, and he or she has to turn to the computer terminal and enter all the data related to the patient," Brown explained. "We're asking the doctor, who is often not a very facile data manager or computer operator, to spend more time with the computer than with the patient. So we're going to reorganize that, get that computer business over to a data clerk who is good at it, and have the doctor dealing with the patient."

And, of course, Brown will also foster the educational relationship between his two employers. "My job is to keep this institution and the federal support it receives tied into our educational effort [at Emory], both at the medical student and postgraduate levels. However this must be done by providing the very best patient care for our veterans," he said. "Because these are attainable goals, I'm having fun doing it."

--Michael Terrazas

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