The Rio Grande Valley—located at the southernmost tip of Texas, next to the border with Mexico—has a largely Mexican-American population and is one of the poorest regions in the country. But the people there have been given a gift of great worth—a new medical school in their area, called the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. And the founding dean chosen to lead the new school is psychiatrist Francisco (Frank) Fernandez, M.D.
Francisco Fernandez, M.D., with students from the University of Texas-Pan American’s Physician Assistant Program during a visit to the campus in February.
University of Texas Pan-American/Josue Esparza
“Frank seems perfect for this new position,” Francine Cournos, M.D., a professor of clinical psychiatry (in epidemiology) at Columbia University, told Psychiatric News. “He’s brilliant, has had a long career in academia, and is an incredibly gifted teacher. His warmth, humor, outgoing personality, and understanding of Latin culture are other great strengths he’ll bring to this historic undertaking. And fortunately he even likes hot weather,” said Cournos, who has known Fernandez for many years.
Fernandez, who until recently was chair of psychiatry at the University of South Florida, applied for the founding dean position last spring. After going through several interviews with a search committee and with legislators, community practitioners, and other constituents of the Rio Grande Valley, he learned in January, from the dean of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, that he was chosen.
“That was a very exciting day, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—starting from scratch with a new medical school with a regional focus,” Fernandez said during a recent interview. “And as I told the folks in the Valley when we made the announcement, I felt like the Pointer Sisters, from their 1980s hit, ‘I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control, and I think I like it.’ I promised them, though, that with all my years of training in psychiatry, I wouldn’t really lose my cool!”
What, then, are some of the challenges that he anticipates in his new position? “Well, first is to get a senior management team in place. Fortunately, a lot of good lead work has already been done in this regard by people in Austin, San Antonio, and the regional academic health centers. We also need to get accreditation and hire clinical and basic-science faculty in time to matriculate the first class of students in 2016. And we’ll also need to get residencies up and running by the time the first class of medical students reaches their third year.”
Some of the health issues of the people in the Rio Grande Valley that he will especially focus on, he said, include alcohol dependence, degenerative diseases, depression, developmental pediatrics, diabetes, domestic violence, infectious diseases, and obesity.
“Frank is a creative, passionate educator and exceptional clinician who demonstrated as chair of psychiatry at the University of South Florida that he was also an outstanding administrator,” Jeffrey Akman, M.D., dean of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, commented. “He brings the whole package with him as a new dean, including the cultural sensitivity required to be a success in south Texas. Frank Fernandez is a terrific choice.”
“Frank is the perfect fit to be the founding dean of the new medical school in the Rio Grande Valley,” added Stuart Yudofsky, M.D., chair of neuropsychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, also in Texas. “First and foremost a consummate consultation/liaison psychiatrist, he is a superb physician who is experienced and adept at working with physicians of all medical specialties. Second, Frank is a gifted leader who is both beloved and respected by all with whom he interacts. Third, Frank is sensitive to and knowledgeable about the rich Hispanic culture and health needs of the Rio Grande Valley and is certain to bring transformational benefits to the health care of this important community.”
Fernandez was born in Cuba in 1951, grew up in New York City, attended medical school at Tufts University, and did his psychiatry residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. After finishing his training in 1984, he went to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston to start his first job. And it was while there that he started his work with AIDS patients, which he then continued at Baylor College of Medicine. After that he served as chair of psychiatry at Loyola University in Chicago and then became chair of psychiatry at the University of South Florida.
Each experience, he said, was a different learning opportunity, and all of them, he anticipates, will help him in his new position as founding dean. ■