Although she had a seamless transition to her job as president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center from being the interim, Lori Rice-Spearman faced tough times with COVID-19.
Rice-Spearman was interim president of the health sciences system for six months, which has five campuses spread across a large region.
“We were at the height, of course, of working through COVID and how that was impacting the community where we serve across West Texas. The good news is the team was working very well together,” she said.
“… It was definitely challenging,” Rice-Spearman added. “Some great, positive things came from the experience that we are going to carry forward as a university around collaboration, how we collaborate, both internally and externally, with different individuals within our university and outside of our university. For example, here in the Permian Basin we were working closely with … the major hospitals — Medical Center Hospital, Midland Memorial Hospital and then also Odessa Regional (Medical Center), as well.”
She added that Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center also collaborated with Odessa College and University of Texas Permian Basin on personal protective equipment.
“So really it brought down some barriers that we potentially had prior to COVID and really has allowed us to work together closely,” Rice-Spearman said.
“COVID impacted every aspect of our university from the way that we were preparing health care professionals academically, how we were running our clinics and providing patient care and how we were conducting research. It touched on every aspect of our campus, all of our campuses across the university,” she added.
As a team, they had not set broad goals yet because they were still in transition from Dr. Tedd Mitchell being TTUHSC president to him moving into the chancellor’s position and Rice-Spearman being interim president.
“What really came out of COVID was it allowed us to set our vision based on the experiences we were having. Our new vision statement is to transform healthcare through innovation and collaboration. We’re building our strategic plan around that for all our campuses. We are working with our communities where we have campuses located around that vision statement of coming in and meeting with our community leaders. For example, just today (June 24) we had a very good meeting with the Odessa Chamber of Commerce, listening to community needs. We’ll continue to do that, building strategies together to determine OK how are we going to collaborate together? Can we develop some new models for healthcare, try some new things so we can serve the good people of West Texas,” Rice-Spearman said.
Texas Tech health sciences also has gotten involved in city block parties so they can figure out healthcare needs for particular neighborhoods and communities and educate them on the resources the health sciences center can provide.
“We’re still discovering pockets of individuals who don’t fully understand the resources of the HSC and how we can support the Permian Basin.”
“We know that we can do a better job of educating the community about our role here and what we can do. We also want to become engaged in the health of our community, this community here in West Texas. So how do we work with partners across the city to really start focusing on the health of the community, being part of task force, work groups that really dig into some of these issues.”
Rice-Spearman is based in Lubbock, but she is a local product. Born in Stanton, she was raised in Odessa and attended Permian High School. She went to Tech to complete her higher education. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech health sciences and her master’s and PhD from Texas Tech University.
She is the first woman president in TTUHSC’s 51-year history, but also in the history of all four universities within the TTU System.
Odessa Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Renee Earls said there is great pride in the fact that Rice-Spearman is an Odessan.
During COVID, Earls said they had several conversations with Rice-Spearman and direct contact with interim Regional Dean Dr. Timothy Benton on ways to help the Odessa community navigate the disease.
Earls said Rice-Spearman is interested in the entire TTUHSC system, including the Permian Basin, becoming involved in population health, which is basically having a healthier community overall.
“I think we’re very fortunate to have an Odessan who has worked her way up through up through the health science center … She definitely earned her spot as the president and knows that health sciences center intimately … We’re looking forward to great things ahead,” Earls said.
TTUHSC has campuses in Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, Midland-Odessa and Dallas. It had 5,274 students for fall 2020. Overall, for the campuses in Odessa and Midland, there are 259 students. Broken out by school, there are 159 students in the School of Health Professions; 49 in the School of Medicine; and 51 in nursing.
“We actually have the largest family medicine residency program in the nation and one of the key features of that residency program is that we put our residents into rural settings as part of their training so that is a unique aspect of our rural medicine training program,” Rice-Spearman said.
She added that they think there will be a couple of initiatives to help support rural communities.
“… First and foremost is our comprehensive Telehealth where we are going to work closely with the state of Texas as they push out broadband across the state, particularly to the rural areas and how we can partner to ensure that those rural communities have access to healthcare through Telehealth. Also through our academic preparation, we can teach and try to target students who are from the area so we can train them in the area in hopes that they will stay in the area for their practices,” Rice-Spearman said.
“The last area we’re focusing on is research. We know for a fact the research has shown that the health disparities in West Texas are significant. Patients die at a much higher rate in this area because of lack of access to healthcare, so that’s a third area of research that we’re looking into. We really want to try to change the focus around to prevention and intervention,” she added.
Rice-Spearman said they are excited to move forward with new leadership in the community.
“I think it’s important that Dr. Tim Benton is the … interim regional dean here in the Permian Basin, the school of medicine and we think he’s got some great visionary ideas. He already has relationships within the community that are going to allow us to move forward … so we think that is a very positive leadership possibility moving forward.”
Dr. Gary Ventolini, the former regional dean, is still part of the team, Rice-Spearman said.
“He will be on our Midland campus and we will continue to be a physician and researcher. He is a wonderful researcher in the area of OB-GYN, so he is still part of our team,” she added.